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BURKE V. SOUTHERN PACIFIC R. CO., 234 U. S. 669 (1914)

U.S. Supreme Court

Burke v. Southern Pacific R. Co., 234 U.S. 669 (1914)

Burke v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company

Nos. 279, 280

Argued January 13, 14, 1913

Decided June 22, 1914

234 U.S. 669


The Act of July 27, 1866, making a grant of alternate odd numbered sections of public land to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company in aid of the construction of its main-line railroad, did not include mineral lands, but, on the contrary, excluded them from its operation

Page 234 U. S. 670

and provided that the company should receive other lands as indemnity for them.

The administration of the grant, including the issue of patents following the construction of the road, was committed to the Land Department, of which the Secretary of the Interior is the supervising officer.

It was contemplated by the granting act that the mineral or nonmineral character of the lands should be determined by the Land Department, and that, depending upon the result, patents should issue or indemnity be allowed.

The patents were to be the legally appointed evidence that the lands described in them had passed to the company under the grant.

A patent issued under such a grant is to be taken, upon a collateral attack, as affording conclusive evidence of the nonmineral character of the land and of the regularity of the acts and proceedings resulting in its issue, and, upon a direct attack, as affording such presumptive evidence thereof as to require plain and convincing proof to overcome it.

If the land officers are induced by false proofs to issue such a patent for mineral lands, or if they issue it fraudulently or through mere inadvertence, a bill in equity on the part of the government will lie to cancel the patent and regain the title, or, in the like circumstances, a prior mineral claimant who had acquired such rights in the land as to entitle him to protection may maintain a bill to have the patentee declared a trustee for him; but such a patent is merely voidable, not void, and cannot be successfully attacked by a stranger who had no interest in the land at the time the patent was issued and was not prejudiced by it.

One who relocates land under the mining law (Rev.Stat., § 2324) by reason of the failure of a prior locator to perform the required annual assessment or development work is not in privity with such prior locator.

The officers of the Land Department are without authority to insert in patents exceptions not contemplated by law, and when they place unauthorized exceptions in patents, the exceptions are void.

An exception inserted in patents issued under the grant here under consideration to the effect that, if any of the lands described should be found to be mineral, the same should be excluded from the operation of the patents, is unauthorized and void, because the granting act contemplated that the patents should effectually and unconditionally pass the title.

An agreement between the railroad company and the land officers that such an exception in the patents should be effective is of no greater

Page 234 U. S. 671

force as an estoppel than the exception itself, and the latter is of no force whatever.

The terms of the patent whereby the government transfers its title to public land are not open to negotiation or agreement. The patentee has no voice in the matter. It in no wise depends upon his consent or will. Neither can the land officer enter into any agreement upon the subject. They are not principals, but agents, of the law, and must heed only its will.

If the land officers enter into any forbidden arrangement whereby public land is transferred to one not entitled to it, the patent may be annulled at the suit of the government, but those officers cannot alter the effect which the law gives to a patent while it is outstanding. The joint resolution of June 28, 1870, relating to this grant did not authorize the use of any excepting clause in the patent.

The facts, which involve the construction and validity of patents for land issued to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company under the Land Grant Act of July 27, 1866, and the effect of provisions in the patents as to the effect of subsequent discovery of minerals, are stated in the opinion.

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