Lynch v. Bernal

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

76 U.S. 315

Lynch  v.  Bernal

[Syllabus from pages 315-317 intentionally omitted]

ERROR to the Supreme Court of the State of California.

The case was ejectment to recover the possession of certain real property situated within the corporate limits of the city of San Francisco, as defined by its charter of 1851, the plaintiffs asserting title to the premises under a grant of the Mexican government confirmed by the tribunals of the United States. The case was commenced in a District Court of the State, and was tried by the court without the intervention of a jury by stipulation of the parties.

The court found as facts, that the plaintiffs (who are the widow and son of Jos e Cornelio Bernal, deceased), in March, 1853, presented a petition to the Board of Land Commissioners, created under the act of March 3d, 1851, to ascertain and settle private land claims in California, [1] for the confirmation of a claim asserted by them to the premises in controversy; in which petition they averred that the premises were granted in 1834 by Figueroa, then Mexican governor of the Department of California, to said Jos e Cornelio Bernal; and that such proceedings were had that in 1854 the said claim was adjudged valid and confirmed by the board; and in 1856, on appeal, by the District Court of the United States. The court set forth in its findings the proceedings had before the board, and the District Court on appeal; and what it declared to be the evidence remaining of record with the clerk of the District Court with respect to the grant. That evidence stated that a grant was made by Governor Figueroa to Bernal, as alleged above, but the court found that according to that evidence no such grant was ever issued, differing in its finding in that respect from both the Board of Land Commissioners and the District Court of the United States.

From the decree confirming the claim of the District Court, the United States declined to prosecute an appeal to this court, and the decree thus became final.

In 1861 the tract confirmed was surveyed under the directions of the Surveyor-General of the United States, and the survey was subjected to the revision and correction of the District Court, under the act of Congress of June 14th, 1860. [2] When made to conform to the directions of the court, the survey and the plat of it were approved, and its decree of approval was, on appeal, affirmed by this court. [3] The approved survey and plat embraced the premises in controversy.

The defendants were in possession of the premises at the commencement of the action; and asserted that they possessed an older and superior title to the premises under the ordinance of the city of San Francisco, adopted in June, 1855, and the subsequent legislation of the State and of the United States respecting the same. Their claim arose in this wise. At the cession of California to the United States, and for many years previous thereto, San Francisco was a Mexican pueblo, asserting a claim to lands embracing its site and adjoining lands to the extent of four square leagues. The city of San Francisco, as successor of the Mexican pueblo, claimed these municipal lands, and presented her claim to the Board of Land Commissioners for confirmation. In December, 1854, the board confirmed the claim to a portion of the land, embracing the premises in controversy. The case was then appealed by the city to the District Court of the United States, and was afterwards transferred to the Circuit Court of the United States, under the act of Congress of July 1st, 1864. [4] In May, 1865, the Circuit Court confirmed the claim to four square leagues, subject to the following deductions, namely: 'Such parcels of land as have been heretofore reserved or dedicated to public uses by the United States; and also such parcels of land as have been by grants from lawful authority vested in private proprietorship, and have been finally confirmed to parties claiming under said grants by the tribunals of the United States, or shall hereafter be finally confirmed to parties claiming thereunder by said tribunals in proceedings pending therein for that purpose, all of which said excepted parcels of land are included within the area of four square leagues, above mentioned (those described as confirmed), but are excluded from the confirmation to the city.' [5] The claim thus confirmed by the decree of the Circuit Court, was also confirmed, with some modifications, by the act of Congress of March 8th, 1866. [6]

Whilst this claim was pending before the District Court on appeal from the board for confirmation, viz., on the 20th of June, 1855, the common council of the city of San Francisco passed 'an ordinance for the settlement and quieting of the land titles in the city of San Francisco,' which is known in that city as the 'Van Ness ordinance,' after the name of its supposed author. By its second section the city relinquished and granted all the title and claim which she held to the lands within her corporate limits, as defined by the charter of 1851, with certain exceptions, to the parties in the actual possession thereof, by themselves or tenants, on or before the 1st of January, 1855, provided said possession was continued up to the time of the introduction of the ordinance into the common council, or if interrupted by an intruder or trespasser, had been or might be recovered by legal proceedings. [7]

In March, 1858, the legislature of the State ratified and confirmed the ordinance, and in July, 1864, Congress passed an act by which all the right and title of the United States to the lands were granted to the city of San Francisco, for the uses specified in the ordinance. [8] The party through whom the defendants claim was in the actual possession of the premises in controversy at the time designated in the ordinance, and also on the passage of the confirmatory act of the legislature, and therefore acquired whatever right or title the city then possessed.

The District Court found as conclusions of law that the defendants were estopped by the final decree of confirmation, and the approval survey, from questioning the plaintiffs' title to the premises, and gave judgment for the plaintiffs for the possession of the premises and $500 damages for their use and occupation. On appeal the judgment was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the State; and the case was brought here under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act.

Messrs. Ashton and G. H. Williams, for the plaintiffs in error; Mr. E. L. Goold, contra.

Mr. Justice FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  9 Stat. at Large, 631.

^2  12 Stat. at Large, 33.

^3  Dehon v. Bernal, 3 Wallace, 774.

^4  13 Stat. at Large, 333.

^5  3 Wallace, 686.

^6  14 Stat. at Large, 4.

^7  15 California, 627.

^8  13 Stat. at Large, 333. Act to expedite the settlement of titles to lands in the State of California, § 5.

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).