United States v. Boisdor

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Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

49 U.S. 113

United States  v.  Boisdor

THE first two of these cases were appeals from the District Court of Mississippi. One of them, viz., The United States v. The Heirs of Boisdor e, was the same case in which a motion to dismiss was made at the preceding term, as reported in 7 Howard, 658.

The third was an appeal from the District Court of Louisiana.

A motion was now made to dismiss the whole three, upon a ground which was common to them all, viz., that the act of 1844, reviving and re enacting the act of 1824, continued it in force for the term of five years, and no longer; and that, as the act was passed on the 17th of June, 1844, it expired upon the 17th of June, 1849. By reason of which expiration, it was alleged, this court had no longer any jurisdiction over the case.

By an act of June 17th, 1844, (5 Stat. at L., 676,) entitled 'An act to provide for the adjustment of land claims within the states of Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and in those parts of the states of Mississippi and Alabama south of the thirty-first degree of north latitude, and between the Mississippi and Perdido Rivers,' it is enacted, 'That so much of the expired act of the 26th of May, 1824, entitled 'An act to enable claimants to land within the state of Missouri and territory of Arkansas to institute proceedings to try the validity of their claims,' as related to the state of Missouri, * * * be and is hereby revived and re enacted, and continued in force for the term of five years, and no longer; and the provisions of that part of the aforesaid act, hereby revived and re enacted, shall be and hereby are extended,' to the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, &c., 'in the same way, and with the same rights, powers, and jurisdictions, to every extent they can be rendered applicable, as if these states had been enumerated in the original act hereby revived, and the enactments expressly applied to them, as to the state of Missouri; and the District Court and the judges thereof, in each of these states, shall have and exercise the like jurisdiction over the land claims in their respective states and districts, originating with either the Spanish, French, or British authorities, as by said act was given to the court and the judge thereof in the state of Missouri.'

The act of the 26th of May, 1824, thus revived and re enacted, (4 Stat. at L., 52,) after describing the classes of cases embraced within its provisions, prescribes, that the claimants shall present a petition to the District Court, setting forth their claims; that proper parties, including the district attorney, shall be made; that the proceedings shall be conducted according to the rules of a court of equity; and that the said court shall have power to hear and determine the questions arising in the cause, and to make a decree. It then, in the latter part of the second section, enacts:-'And in all cases, the party against whom the judgment or decree of the said District Court may be finally given shall be entitled to an appeal, within one year from the time of its rendition, to the Supreme Court of the United States, the decision of which court shall be final and conclusive between the parties; and should no appeal be taken, the judgment or decree of the said District Court shall, in like manner, be final and conclusive.'

By the fifth section it is enacted 'that any claim to lands, tenements, or hereditaments, within the purview of this act, which shall not be brought by petition before the said courts within two years from the passing of this act, or which, after being brought before the said courts, shall, on account of the neglect or delay of the claimant, not be prosecuted to a final decision within three years, shall be forever barred, both at law and in equity; and no other action at common law, or proceeding in equity, shall ever thereafter be sustained, in any court whatever, in relation to said claims.'

In the three cases above mentioned, petitions had been filed in the respective courts, and the district judge confirmed the claims to the several petitioners. The United States appealed to this court.

The motion to dismiss was sustained by Mr. Volney Howard and Mr. Henderson, and opposed by Mr. Gillet and Mr. Johnson (Attorney-General).

The motion and brief, as filed by Mr. Henderson, were as follows:

The appellees have presented their respective motions to dismiss these cases, in form, as follows:--

'And now at this term come the appellees, by attorney, and move the court to dismiss this case, because the court has no jurisdiction thereof, in this, to wit:-That the court from which this case is brought here by appeal had but a limited and special jurisdiction of the case in virtue of two acts of Congress, the one of date 17th June, 1844, entitled 'An act to provide for the adjustment of land claims within the states of Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and those parts of the states of Mississippi and Alabama south of the 31st degree of north latitude, and between the Mississippi and Perdido rivers,' and which said act revived a certain other expired act therein recited of date 26th May, 1824, for five years and no longer, and during the operative existence of which two acts, the decree in this case was pronounced. And because by virtue of which said act of 1824, so revived as aforesaid, and by no other law or authority whatever, this court was assigned to have a like special jurisdiction of this case by appeal; but which act, so revived as aforesaid, ceased and expired on the 17th of June, 1849, by express legislative limitation, without any saving clause for the adjudication of cases then pending.'

Assuming the facts to be as set forth in this motion, we contend that there is now no low in force giving to this court jurisdiction of these cases, or of supplying any rule by which it can review them; and the same must therefore be dismissed.

It is well settled, that this court has no general jurisdiction in matters of appeal. That unless Congress authorize an appeal by statute, none can be entertained. 11 Pet., 165, 166; 3 How., 104; 6 Pet., 495; 1 Cranch, 212; 3 Id., 159; 6 Id., 307; 3 Dall., 321, 327; 1 How., 268; 3 Id., 317; 7 Wheat., 38; 3 Pet., 193; 7 Id., 568.

It is equally well settled, that the United States have no greater claim to assert the right of appeal, or any other legal right as a litigant, than a citizen has; and have no right of appeal unless expressly accorded to them by act of Congress. 6 Pet., 494; 11 Id., 165, 166.

If, therefore, it be shown that the appeal given by the statute of 1824 was special, and had its origin with that statute, and that the statute conferred a special and peculiar jurisdiction, appellate as well as original, and that said statute has expired or is repealed, we suppose the legal conclusion of such showing to be demonstrative in favor of our motion to dismiss, unless some other law be shown to sustain the appeal.

A mere glance at the records and decrees in these cases, show them to have been adjudicated in pursuance of the authority conferred by these two statutes. And the reading of the statute of 1824 will certify the speciality of the jurisdiction it confers in every section.

It is special as to the states to which it applies, being but five in number. Special as to the classes of cases it submits for trial; and even excepts one case of the classes submitted.

It is special in designating the court to have cognizance of the cases, and directing the mode of procedure. Selecting the District Courts of the United States, which have no general chancery jurisdiction, and directing them to adjudicate the cases in accordance with equity practice.

It is peculiarly special, also, in enlarging the field of equity power in the latitude given for the decision of these cases. Submitting them to be adjudged in 'conformity with the principles of justice,' and 'according to the law of nations; the stipulations of any treaty, and proceedings under the same; the several acts of Congress in relation thereto; the laws and ordinances of the government from which it (the title) is alleged to have been derived; and all other questions properly arising between the claimant and the United States.' It is strikingly special in permitting the citizen to implead and litigate with the government.

The rules of evidence are special; the common law rules being relaxed in these cases.

The statute submitted, also, legal and complete titles to be tried under equitable rules.

The decree to be pronounced was special in its recitals and requirements.

The powers of the court were peculiarly special, also, in being permitted to decree the survey of the claims adjudged, though affecting the public domain.

And the operation and effect of the decree are also singularly special, when, after adjudging the title of the petitioner in his favor, it deprived him of so much of the claim as the United States had previously disposed of, and turned him over for reclamation upon the public lands: the decree, to this extent, thus operating as land scrip.

The time allowed for an appeal from decrees pronounced under this statute is special, being limited to one year.

Such are a portion of the peculiar and special rules under which proceedings in these cases have been carried on, and the decrees pronounced, pursuant to the act of 26th May, 1824, and while it was in force. And such only must be the rules by which this court can review and revise these cases, if it assumes to review them at all. It must be certainly requisite, then, if this court is to review these cases by these rules (being the rules by which the court below adjudged them), the rules themselves must have vitality, and be in force. Because, from no other laws and from no other source of authority, can these rules be invoked, but from the act of 1824. But this act, by the special limitation of the act of 1844, which revived it, was prescribed in the precise measure and duration of its operative existence; and the act again became functus on the 17th of June, 1849.

This act, therefore, which conferred specially all the jurisdiction this court could ever entertain of these cases, is now as if it had never been, except as to the rights it conferred, consummated, or established, while in force.

This court, then, can have no right to retain these cases upon its docket, because it has no rule, law, or authority in existence by which it can try and adjudge them. In other words, the jurisdiction by which it was contemplated this court should have cognizance of these cases was wholly special, and the law which conferred it is extinct, and has ceased to be a rule. And this conclusion we think clearly sustained by the following authorities. Miller's case, 3 Burr., 1456; 1 Hill (N. Y.), 328-336; 2 Pet., 523, 524; 5 Mart. (La.), 462; 4 Wend. (N. Y.), 211; 6 Id., 526; 1 Watts. (Pa.), 258; 4 Yeates (Pa.), 392; 17 La. 478; Dwarris on Statutes, 676; 4 Mann. & R., 586-588; 9 Barn. & C., 750; 12 Moo., 357-359; 4 Moo. & P., 341, 351; 4 Bing., 212.

We consider the court has already construed this statute of 1824 as conferring a special jurisdiction, as well as special remedy. (United States v. Curry, 6 How., 113. And see 6 Pet., 493, and 11 Id., 165, 166.)

Congress, too, in extending this act of 1824, by the act of 24th May, 1828 (4 Stat. at L., 298), obviously discovers its opinion, that, with the expiration of the law, the jurisdiction also terminated.

And so, too, in repealing the bankrupt laws of 1800 and of 1841. In both instances, Congress inserted a saving clause, to save jurisdiction in cases pending at the time of the repeal; and without which, doubtless, those cases would have fallen with the repeal.

Mr. Gillet said it was not his purpose to controvert the correctness of the positions laid down in the cases cited for the motion. If there was no statute in force conferring jurisdiction upon the Supreme Court, he should not contend that these appeals could be heard. Nor should he insist that the Judiciary Act conferred any such power. It was found in the act of 1824, or did not exist at all. It has been contended, that this act expired in five years from its approval, and was revived June 17, 1844, for five years only, and is not now in force. He denied the correctness of this assumption, and took issue upon it. The second and fifth sections of the act of 1824 contain limitations upon the claimant, as to the time within which the petition shall be presented, and the cause heard and an appeal taken. The residue of the act is without limitation. As a whole, it is as permanent as any other statute. An examination of its provisions, and especially sections 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11, will prove this. The fifth section contains an important limitation, while the seventh contains an important provision applicable to all bonds not determined to belong to claimants. There is no limitation upon the jurisdiction of this court, when a cause is lawfully brought here. The act of 1844 revived and continued in operation provisions relating to proceedings in the court below only.

But if we are in error in this view of the statute, then these appeals, having removed the causes from the court below, cannot be sent back to that court. If there is no law empowering this court to hear and determine them, then it has no power to act upon them at all, and it can perform no act which will entitle either party to any advantage which they did not possess, and could not enforce, on the day when the revival act of 1844 expired. To dismiss the appeal, and thereby furnish evidence that the causes had not been lawfully brought here under the act, would lay the foundation for the claimants to contend that it was never properly made, and that they were therefore entitled to patents under the decision of the district judge.

Mr. Johnson (Attorney-General) said, that, if the construction given to these laws upon the other side was correct, the result would be that they could stand upon the decree below as a final decree. But all these land laws did not contemplate that the decree of the court below was to be final, in case either party chose to appeal; and we had obtained an appeal when it was properly taken even upon the showing of the other side, and when this court had undoubted jurisdiction over the case. Let us look into the act of 1824, and then examine what part of it was revived. The dispute is, whether the jurisdiction of this court, when once attached, stopped when five years expired after the passage of the act of 1844. If we had now a case before us arising under the act of 1824 alone, without any other act having been passed, this court could decide it and settle the controversy, provided the appeal had been taken in proper time.

(Mr. Henderson said he conceded that.)

Then if the opposite counsel concedes that, I think that the other consequences for which I contend must follow. What was the character of the act of 1824? It describes the claims which are to be presented, the notice to be given, the proceedings to be had, the principles by which the decision is to be governed, and states the reasons for granting an appeal to this court. The claimant had a year to decide whether he would appeal or not. The District Attorney was directed to consult the Attorney-General whether or not an appeal should be taken in case the decision was adverse to the United States. If no appeal was taken, the decree below was final. If the claimant succeeded, a copy of the decree was to be presented to the land office, and he would receive his patent. If he succeeded by the judgment of this court, he was to present the certificate of the clerk of this court to the land office, before he could receive a patent. But how was this to be done, if the jurisdiction of this court was to cease after the expiration of five years from the passage of the act of 1844? It is admitted that, under the act of 1824, the jurisdiction of this court would not have ceased. Therefore, the opposite counsel must contend that the two acts are not alike; and yet the act of 1844 extends the act of 1824 'in the same way, and with the same rights, powers, and jurisdictions to every extent they can be rendered applicable.' Suppose a party were to put off the trial of his cause in the court below until a late period, or the court was so pressed with business that the case could not be taken up, or that the District Attorney could not immediately report to the Attorney-General, a decree might be passed for millions which would be irrevocably lost to the government; and yet it is admitted that this would not have been so under the act of 1824. These laws have always looked to a supervision, by this court, of the decree of the District Court; and if the opposite counsel are right, this act of 1844 is an exception to all the laws, and Congress have committed a palpable blunder.

But reliance is placed by the opposite counsel upon the phraseology of the act of 1844, namely, that the act of 1824 is continued in force for the term of five years and no longer. What has this court said about the same expression in another law? The act of 24th May, 1828, (4 Stat. at L., 298,) was to continue in force until the 26th of May, 1830, and no longer; and yet cases where decided here long after that day. This very question was involved and decided in those cases. If the court had no jurisdiction and the appellate power had expired, all these judgments are void. The titles will be lost to thousands of acres, which are now held under these judgments.

Mr. Chief Justice TANEY delivered the opinion of the court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).