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decided: March 26, 1900.



Author: Harlan

[ 177 U.S. Page 355]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, after stating the facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

1. The final judgment of the Supreme Court of the Territory

[ 177 U.S. Page 356]

     can be reexamined here if the value of the matter in dispute be sufficient to give this court jurisdiction. The defendant claimed to have acquired by his entry and settlement a vested interest in the entire land covered by his entry, and insisted that even if the plaintiff obtained a patent therefor the title would be held in trust for him. He proceeds in his defence upon the ground that after residing upon the land for the period designated in the statute he will be entitled under the law to a patent. It ought not to be assumed that he will put himself in such position that he cannot demand a patent. Although the naked legal title remains in the United States in trust for the person who may earn it, we think that in determining the value of the matter in dispute we should look at the value of the land, not simply at the value of the right of present possession. According to the weight of proof, the value of the land embraced by the homestead entry of Black is more than the sum required for our jurisdiction.23 Stat. 443, c. 355; 26 Stat. 81, 86, c. 182, § 9. Besides, the demurrer admitted the averment in the answer to the effect that the land with the defendant's improvements thereon could be transferred in the manner stated in the answer for the sum of $6000. The motion to dismiss the appeal must therefore be overruled.

2. This case having been determined on demurrer to the answer, it must be taken as true that Black resided upon the land in dispute on and after September 16, 1893, claiming the right to do so in virtue of the laws of the United States and of a homestead entry made before the one made by Jackson. It appears that the Land Office recognized the prior right to be in Jackson. This action of the Land Office, Black contends, was erroneous in matter of law, and he has announced his purpose, in the event a patent is issued to Jackson, to institute appropriate judicial proceedings, the object of which will be to have it declared that the legal title is held in trust for him. He insists that although, in the absence of fraud, the courts will not go behind the facts found by the Land Department in any contest before it relating to the administration of the public lands, he is not concluded by the decision of that department upon questions of law.

If parties are injuriously affected by any action of the Land

[ 177 U.S. Page 357]

     Department based upon an erroneous view of the law, the courts have power in some form to protect their rights against such illegal action. In Cornelius v. Kessel, 128 U.S. 456, 461, this court said: "The power of supervision possessed by the Commissioner of the General Land Office over the acts of the register and receiver of the local land offices in the disposition of the public lands, undoubtedly authorizes him to correct and annul entries of land allowed by them, where the lands are not subject to entry, or the parties do not possess the qualifications required, or have previously entered all that the law permits. The exercise of this power is necessary to the due administration of the land department. If an investigation of the validity of such entries were required in the courts of law before they could be cancelled, the necessary delays attending the examination would greatly impair, if not destroy, the efficiency of the department. But the power of supervision or correction is not an unlimited or an arbitrary power. It can be exerted only when the entry was made upon false testimony, or without authority of law. It cannot be exercised so as to deprive any person of land lawfully entered and paid for. By such entry and payment the purchaser secures a vested interest in the property and a right to a patent therefor, and can no more be deprived of it by order of the Commissioner than he can be deprived by such order of any other lawfully acquired property. Any attempted deprivation in that way of such interest will be corrected whenever the matter is presented so that the judiciary can act upon it." So in Sanford v. Sanford, 139 U.S. 642, 647, it was said that where the matters determined by the Land Office "are not properly before the department, or its conclusions have been reached from a misconstruction by its officers of the law applicable to the cases before it, and it has thus denied to parties rights which, upon a correct construction, would have been conceded to them, or where misrepresentations and fraud have been practised, necessarily affecting its judgment, then the courts can, in a proper proceeding, interfere and control its determination so as to secure the just rights of parties injuriously affected" -- citing Quinby v. Conlan, 104 U.S. 420, 426; Baldwin v. Stark, 107 U.S. 463, 465.

[ 177 U.S. Page 358]

     As to Jackson's right to possession, it is clear that although successful in his contest with Black before the Land Office, no patent could issue to him under the original homestead law until after the expiration of five years from the date of his entry, and not then except upon proof that he, or if he be dead his widow, or if she be dead her heirs or devisees, prove "by two credible witnesses that he, she or they have resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years immediately succeeding the time of filing the affidavit, [required by § 2290 of the Revised Statutes,] and makes affidavit that no part of such land has been alienated, except as provided in § 2288, and that he, she or they will bear true allegiance to the Government of the United States; then, in such case, he she or they, if at that time citizens of the United States, shall be entitled to a patent, as in other cases provided by law." Rev. Stat. § 2291. But by the third section of the act of May 14, 1880, entitled "An act for the relief of settlers on public lands," 21 Stat. 140, c. 89, it was provided "that any settler who has settled, or who shall hereafter settle, on any of the public lands of the United States, whether surveyed or unsurveyed, with the intention of claiming the same under the homestead laws, shall be allowed the same time to file his homestead application and perfect his original entry in the United States land office as is now allowed to settlers under the preemption laws to put their claims on record, and his right shall relate back to the date of settlement, the same as if he settled under the preemption laws."

It thus appears that Jackson holds only an inchoate title to the land in dispute, and that he may so conduct himself before making final proof and securing final certificate as to forfeit his right to obtain a patent based upon the decision of the Land Office.

By the decree below the defendant is enjoined from entering upon the premises in question or exercising any further control or possession over them, except to remove his improvements within thirty days after the decree. In his original answer the defendant claimed that he was entitled to a trial by jury, and in his amended answer ...

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