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    CESSNA v. U S, 169 U.S. 165 (1898)

    U.S. Supreme Court

    CESSNA v. U S, 169 U.S. 165 (1898)

    169 U.S. 165

    CESSNA et al.
    UNITED STATES et al.
    No. 78.

    February 21, 1898

    On January 9, 1893, the appellants, as plaintiffs, filed their petition in the court of private land claims, praying that their title to a tract of land in the territory of New Mexico, and near to the city of El Paso, Tex., be confirmed. The plaintiffs named as defendants, besides the United States, the unknown owners of the Dona Ana Bend colony, Mesilla colony, and Bracito grants. The United States, as well as certain individuals, representing themselves to be the owners of these grants, appeared and answered. Thereafter a trial was had, and on June 26, 1895, the court entered a decree, finding that the plaintiffs' claim of a land grant had not been sustained by satisfactory proof, and dismissing the petition. From such decree the plaintiffs have brought this appeal.

    The facts disclosed by the record, and about which there is little dispute, are substantially as follows: In April, 1823, one Doctor John Heath, or Juan Gid, as his name is written in the Spanish, petitioned the ayuntamiento or general council of El Paso for a grant of a tract of land, which petition was acted upon by the ayuntamiento, and a tract five leagues square was granted to him. This petition was in these words:

    Certain proceedings were had upon this petition, which it is unnecessary to mention in detail.

    On April 22d this order was made by the ayuntamiento:

    And on the 25th the following:

    It does not appear that notice of this action of the provincial deputation was at the time communicated to Heath, for soon after the final order of the ayuntamiento he returned to this country, and to the state of Missouri, of which state he had theretofore been a citizen, made a disposition of his property, and collected a body of colonists, with whom, in the year 1824, he proceeded to El Paso, with a view of taking possession of this tract of land. Instead of bei g permitted to occupy the tract, he was banished from the country, forced to abandon the property that he had brought with him, and sent back to the United States a bankrupt. He returned to Missouri, where he lived until he died, in the year 1851. Petitioners claim under him.

    The national colonization law of January 4, 1823, under which these proceedings were had, is, so far as it can have any application to the present case, translated by Rockwell (Rock. Sp. Law, p. 617), as follows:

    There is a dispute as to the proper translation of section 4, the original of which is:

    And a translation thereof, as furnished by Mr. Tipton, a special agent and Spanish expert of the department of justice in the office of the United States attorney for the court of private land claims, is:

    At the time of the enactment of this colonization law Iturbide was the emperor of Mexico. Soon thereafter a revolution followed. He abdicated on March 20, 1823, and his banishment was ordered by a decree of the constituent congress of Mexico, April 23d, in these words:

    Article 10 of the original draft of the treaty of Gu dalupe Hidalgo, as agreed upon between the commissioners representing this government and Mexico, was as follows:

    That article, however, was stricken out by the senate of the United States, and in the message of President Polk the reasons for its rejection are stated in the following language (Id. 32):

    And in the treaty as ratified were left the following provisions, which guaranty only the rights of Mexicans to property belonging to them in the territory (9 Stat. 929, art. 8):

    The act creating the court of private land claims provides, in section 13 (26 Stat. 860):

    The eighth subdivision of the same section also contains this limitation:

    Robert Rae and J. B. Cessna, for appellants. [169 U.S. 165, 177]   Sol. Gen. Richards, Matt. G. Reynolds, and Frank Springer, for appellees.

    Mr. Justice BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

    The court of private land claims was of the opinion that the ayuntamiento or town council had no power to make a grant, such as this, of a tract entirely outside the four square leagues supposed to belong to the town; and, secondly, that, even if it had such power, the conditions of the alleged grant were never performed by Heath, and therefore he acquired no title to the property.

    The colonization law of January 4, 1823, was in force only a short time, having been suspended by the decree of April 11, 1823, and superseded by the law of August 18, 1824. Few proceedings were had under it, and therefore its true meaning cannot be considered as determined by any settled usage of the Mexican authorities. Indeed, counsel for appellants, with all their industry, have been able to find but one other grant made or attempted to be made under its authority. It is, to say the least, difficult to discern in this law any warrant for an original grant by the ayuntamiento. Article 2 provides that 'the executive will distribute lands.' This is in accord with the settled policy of the old Spanish law, which reserved to the king the power of granting lands. Doubtless this power was often exercised under the directions of the king by subordinate officials, but full control was retained by him. So here the executive retains the control of the distribution of lands. It is true the article provides that such distribution shall be 'under the conditions and terms herein expressed,' but that simply means the conditions and terms under which the executive will act. Article 3 refers to grants to empresarios, and specifically declares that they 'shall previously contract with the executive,' who will 'designate the province to which they must direct themselves; the lands which they can occupy.' It is said that Heath does not come [169 U.S. 165, 178]   within the terms of this article, because he did not propose to introduce at least 200 families, and this contention is doubtless correct. Article 4, upon which the plaintiffs specially rely, makes provision for families who emigrate 'not included in a contract,' evidently referring thereby to the empresario contracts specified in the preceding sec ion. Such families are directed to 'present themselves to the ayuntamiento of the place where they wish to settle, in order that this body, in conformity with the instructions of the executive, may designate the lands corresponding to them, agreeably to the industry which they may establish.' Accepting the contention of plaintiffs that Heath comes within the scope of this article, we note these limitations: The emigrating families are to present themselves to the ayuntamiento of the 'place where they wish to settle,' not the ayuntamiento of the town nearest to the land upon which they wish to settle. The natural meaning of this is that when families desire to settle within the limits of a town they shall present themselves to the ayuntamiento of that town for a designation of the lands they may occupy. It would be strange to find that a town council was empowered to grant lands outside the limits of the town and anywhere within the territory or department in which it was situated, while it is not strange to find that council authorized to locate emigrants upon those vacant lands, not exceeding four leagues square, which, according to Spanish and Mexican custom, were ordinarily appurtenant and subject to the jurisdiction of the town. We do not mean to intimate that El Paso in fact possessed a territory of four square leagues over which it had jurisdiction, although that seems to have been the opinion of the court of private land claims, for it said: 'El Paso, like other Spanish towns, is presumed to have had a grant of four square leagues of land, and the ayuntamiento had the power to make allotments of land within the four leagues so granted.'

    This matter was considered in U. S. v. City of Santa F e, 165 U.S. 675, 699 , 17 S. Sup. Ct. 472, and the conclusion was reached, after full examination, that it was not true, under the Spanish law, that every town was entitled to a grant of four leagues square, the [169 U.S. 165, 179]   court saying: 'The inference to be deduced from all these documents supports the theory that under the Spanish laws, as found in the recopilacion, all towns are not entitled by operation of law to four square leagues, but that at a late date the Spanish officials had adopted the theory that four square leagues was the normal quantity which might be designated as the limits of the new pueblos to be thereafter created.'

    Still it was undoubtedly true that by special grant or contract many towns did have such an area of contiguous and dependent territory, and it would seem that this article gave the ayuntamiento authority to designate such portion of those lands as it deemed suitable to the industry which the emigrating families proposed to undertake.

    We notice another limitation in this article, and that is that the designation by the ayuntamiento is to be made 'in conformity with the instructions of the executive.' This contemplates, as preliminary to the action of the ayuntamiento, some instructions from the executive, either general or special. Within the letter of this provision the executive might, in a given case, authorize the ayuntamiento of a particular town to designate lands outside of the town lands proper for emigrating families; but surely in this article there is no general grant of power to every town council to give away lands anywhere within the territory or department without any previous instructions or directions from the executive. Neither is the power contended for to be found in article 23, which simply authorizes the ayuntamiento, in case any colonist shall fail to cultivate the land which has been given him, to regrant the same tract to another. It might well he that the ayuntamiento should have power after the lapse of a grant to regrant the same tract to another party. But it does not follows therefrom that the power to regrant lapsed lands implies a power to make an original grant.

    Neither is the plaintiffs' case helped by the assertion that the fact of a grant presumes the power to make it. Counsel quote from U. S. v. Peralta, 19 How. 34 -347: 'The presumption arising from the grant itself makes it prima facie [169 U.S. 165, 180]   evidence of the power of the officer making it, and throws the burden of proof on the party denying it.'

    Whatever may be the scope of this proposition, we find in these proceedings a distinct declaration that the town council regarded its action as only preliminary, and requiring for finality the approval of the government. In the first resolution passed by the ayuntamiento on the petition of Dr. Heath it is recited:

    And in the letter transmitting the proceedings to the governor it is said:

    And again:


    So that the ayuntamiento, assuming to act, declared specifically that it did so 'subject to the superior determination,' and submitted its action to the governor of the province.

    Further, on the receipt of this communication by the acting governor, it was presented to the provincial deputation, which expressly disapproved the proposed grant, and directed that notice of its disapproval should be promptly communicated to Dr. Heath. The language of the resolution passed by the provincial deputation is clear. It declares that the action taken by the ayuntamiento was not only with prejudice to the inhabitants of that jurisdiction, but also in violation of law. It is true that it does not point out wherein the violation of law consists, and refrains from further observations on account of the repeal of the colonization law, but it does direct the ayuntamiento to give notice to Heath, through the United States minister, or in some other manner, that the possession given to him was 'through a mistaken opinion and wrong understanding in relation to the colonization law already repealed,' and that this notice should be given in order to prevent any claim for damages in case Dr. Heath should introduce into the province the families that he had offered to bring. Even if the disapproval had been based solely on the fact that the colonization law of 1823 had been repealed, that would have been sufficient; for whatever might be adjudged the power of the ayuntamiento, and although it might have made a grant without reference to the provincial deputation [169 U.S. 165, 182]   or the governor of the province, yet, for reasons which to it were satisfactory, it expressly declared that the grant was subject to their approval, and, in case that approval was withheld, of course the grant never became operative.

    The other case to which counsel refer, in which the ayuntamiento assumed to act under the law of 1823, instead of supporting the contention that it had absolute power in the matter, tends in the other direction, and supports the opposite contention, for in that, as in this, it referred its action for approval to the governor of the province. That case was of a grant of a tract on the left side of the Rio Grande, made to Don Jos e Lerma by this same ayuntamiento of El Paso, the proceedings in respect to which were introduced in evidence. They show that upon the petition of Lerma, on August 23, 1823, the ayuntamiento passed a resolution declaring that it deemed it proper to make the grant, but adding: 'Let all that has been done be brought to the knowledge of the most excellent deputation of Chihuahua, in order that it may approve this grant, if it be its superior pleasure.'

    In pursuance of this resolution the application was presented to the deputation of Chihuahua, which on October 10, 1823, approved the proposed grant in the following words:

    On the receipt of such approval on October 30, 1823, the ayuntamiento proceeded to pass this resolution:

    It also appointed a commission to set off the tract to Lerma. On December 12, 1823, on the report of that commission, it entered the following order:

    Even this action did not seem to resolve all doubts as to the validity of this grant, for, in a petition presented by Lerma to the constitutional governor of the state of Chihuahua in 1828, he set forth the action of the ayuntamiento and the provincial deputation in 1823, and the delivery to him of the tract, and then, after alleging that the subsequent ayuntamiento refused to acknowledge the validity of the grant, added:

    Upon such petition the following action was taken:

    Town of El Paso del Norte: [169 U.S. 165, 184]   'The decree or title of possession ordered to be given by the provincial deputation and the council of El Paso del Norte in the year 1823, whereby fifty leagues of land on the left side of the Rio Bravo were granted to Don Jos e Lerma, has been ratified and confirmed by the second constitutional congress of this state in consideration of distinguished military services rendered to the republic by the retired lieutenant, Jos e Lerma.

    This order of the governor, as will be seen, did not rest the validity of the grant upon the action of the ayuntamiento, or even upon its action as approved by the provincial deputation, but recited that the title had been ratified and confirmed by the second constitutional congress of the state. So that the only other case in which, as said by counsel, action was taken, under this law of 1823, by any ayuntamiento, clearly shows that it did not understand that it had absolute power, but that its proceedings required approval by the provincial deputation or some higher authority. The court of private land claims was right in its conclusions that no final grant had ever been made to Dr. Heath of the tract in controversy.

    But it is unnecessary to rest the case upon this alone; for, even if the ayuntamiento had full and final jurisdiction in the premises and had made an absolute and unconditional grant,-one beyond the power of any superior authority to disapprove and annul,-still we think the judgment of the court of private land claims was right, because, as indisputably appears from the evidence, when Dr. Heath came with his colonists to take possession of the tract, the Mexican authorities repudiated the alleged grant, denied his rights, and practically drove him from the country. Not only that, but, as the record shows, the Mexican government thereafter granted to other parties large portions of the same tract. The disavowal, repudiation, expulsion, and subsequent grants were in no respect the irregular acts of a mere mob or other unauthorized parties. They [169 U.S. 165, 185]   were the deliberate official proceedings of the duly-constituted authorities of the Mexican government. This repudiation commenced in 1824, and continued until the cession of territory to the United States, under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. During all those years, so far as the record shows, no action was taken by Dr. Heath to enforce his claim or recover damages from the government of Mexico for the alleged wrongs done him. Neither were any proceedings taken by him, or those claiming under him, from the treaty of cession until the presentation of this petition before the court of private land claims. In other words, for seventy years ( more than twenty of which the land was within the dominion of the government of Mexico) this claim was permitted to lie dormant. Other people have passed into possession of parts, at least, of the tract, and are occupying it under subsequent grants from that government Twice during this lapse of time was provision made for an adjustment of claims of citizens of the United States against the government of Mexico. On April 11, 1839, a convention was entered into between the two nations referring to four commissioners all claims of citizens of the United States against Mexico which had been presented to this government for consideration. 8 Stat. 526. And again, in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, there was a further provision of like nature. 9 Stat. 922. Article 14 of that treaty released the Mexican government in these words:

    The fifteenth article, which created the commission, directed that it should be guided and governed by the principles and rules of decisions prescribed by the first and fifth articles of a prior unratified convention, and in the first of those articles it was provided: [169 U.S. 165, 186]   'The said commissioners, thus appointed, shall, in the presence of each other, take an oath to examine and decide impartially the claims submitted to them, and which may lawfully be considered, according to the proofs which shall be presented, the principles of right and justice, the law of nations, and the treaties between the two republics.'

    So that if Dr. Heath had any claim against the Mexican government on account of being deprived of this alleged grant he could, by a presentation of it under one or other of these treaties, have received full compensation. The fact that he made no claim is persuasive evidence that he did not understand that what had taken place amounted to a complete grant.

    Further, when the United States received this territory under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, they refused to recognize as still valid and enforceable all grants which had been assumed to be made prior thereto by the Mexican authorities. Article 10, as proposed by the commissioners, was rejected by this government and stricken out from the treaty. That article not only contemplated binding this government to respect all grants which would have been recognized as valid by the government of Mexico if no cession had been made, but also proposed to give to grantees who had failed to perform the conditions of their grants, and whose failure to perform might be deemed to have avoided the grants, further time to perform the conditions. By the rejection of this article this government distinctly declared that it did not propose to recognize any grants which were not at the time of the treaty of cession recognized by the Mexican government as valid, or any whose conditions, either precedent or subsequent, had not been fully performed.

    In this respect the action taken was in harmony with the general rule of international law. It is the duty of a nation receiving a cession of territory to respect all rights of property as those rights were recognized by the nation making the cession, but it is no part of its duty to right the wrongs which the grantor nation may have theretofore committed upon every individual. There may be an exception when the [169 U.S. 165, 187]   dispossession and wrong of the grantor nation were so recently before the cession that the individual may not have had time to appeal to the courts or authorities of that nation for redress. In such a case, perhaps, the duty will rest upon the grantee nation; but such possible exception has no application to the present case, and in no manner abridges the general rule that among the burdens assumed by the nation receiving the cession is not the obligation to right wrongs which have for many years theretofore been persisted in by the grantor nation. Bec use Mexico had more than 20 years before the cession forcibly taken from Dr. Heath land that was rightfully his, and given part or all of it to other persons, it does not follow that when the United States accepted the cession they came under obligations to do that which Mexico had failed to do,-place Dr. Heath in possession, and restore to him the land of which he had been thus wrongfully deprived. Such action, if taken, might well expose this government to just claims for compensation in behalf of the subsequent grantees of Mexico, who apparently took no personal part in the wrongs done to Heath. Dr. Heath may have had a claim against Mexico for those wrongs, but he failed to prosecute his claim in the way prescribed, and he cannot now make his failure to pursue such prescribed way a reason for enforcing a title which that nation had refused to recognize. So long as Mexico repudiated his claim to this tract his only recourse was by direct appeal or through the intervention of this government to seek compensation for the property of which he had been deprived. When this government accepted the cession of the territory it did not thereby assume an obligation to satisfy any pecuniary demands which he, as an individual, may have had against the Mexican government. In other words, it took that territory bound to respect all rights of property which the Mexican government respected, but under no obligations to right the wrongs which that government had theretofore committed.

    But even if there were an obligation on the part of this government, either under the general rules of international law or the terms of the treaty of cession, to recognize plain- [169 U.S. 165, 188]   tiffs' claim to this particular tract, yet the time, manner, and conditions of enforcing it would depend upon the will of congress. And in creating the court of private land claims congress has prescribed the character of claims which that court may determine and the conditions which must attach to any claim which it may enforce. This claim, even if the grant in its inception was valid, was not one which it was within the province of the court of private land claims to approve and confirm. The eighth clause of section 13 forbids the confirmation of a grant made upon any condition or requirement, either antecedent or subsequent, unless it appears that such condition and requirement had been performed within the time and in the manner stated in the grant. That certain conditions or requirements were attached to this grant is evident from a perusal of the application and the order. That they were not performed is admitted by plaintiffs. Their contention is that performance was prevented by the Mexican authorities, and, having been prevented, it should be considered that performance was waived and the title had become absolute. Whatever may be said as to the duty of this government to treat a condition whose performance was prevented by the Mexican authorities as a condition performed does not detract from the proposition that the court of private land claims is not vested with such power. It is a mere creature of statute, with prescribed and limited powers. It has no general equity jurisdiction. It can confirm a grant made upon condition only when such condition was performed. It is not under the statute at liberty to treat anything as equivalent to performance. Cases in which there was no performance of the conditions of the grant are cases which must be considered as reserved by congress for further action on its part. So that under the terms of the act creating the court of private land claims, even if there were no other objections to the proceedings, the admitted fact that the conditions and requirements of this grant were never performed is sufficient to justify the ruling of the court in dismissing the petition.

    Of course, the observations above made may not be applicable [169 U.S. 165, 189]   to a case in which the Mexican government had subsequently to the original grant, and prior to the cession, waived the performance of the conditions; for, as it had power in the first instance to make the grant without conditions, its action in subsequently waiving or removing such conditions was equivalent to an original grant without conditions.

    We have not deemed it necessary to consider the matter of limitations and laches. That this is an old claim is evident, 70 years having elapsed between its inception and its prosecution. Whether it must also be adjudged a stale claim and beyond judicial recognition need not be determined. The other reasons presented for its rejection are sufficient.

    We see no error in the proceedings, and the judgment is affirmed.

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