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MORAN V. HORSKY, 178 U. S. 205 (1900)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Moran v. Horsky, 178 U.S. 205 (1900)

Moran v. Horsky

No. 177

Argued and submitted March 12, 1900

Decided May 21, 1900

178 U.S. 205


A neglected right, if neglected too long, must be treated as an abandoned right, which no court will enforce.

Whenever the invalidity of a land patent does not appear upon the face of the instrument, or by matters of which the court is will take judicial notice, and the land is apparently within the jurisdiction of the land department as ordinary public land of the United States, then it would seem to be technically more accurate to say that the patent was voidable, not void.

The defense of laches, put in in this case, is the assertion of an independent defense proceeding upon the concession that there was, under the laws of the United States, a prior right, and conceding that, says that the delay in respect to its assertion prevents its present recognition, and the Court is of opinion that the decision of the Supreme Court of Montana in this case was based upon an independent nonfederal question broad enough to sustain its judgment.

The facts in this case are as follows: on June 15, 1872, a patent was issued to the Probate Judge of Lewis and Clarke County, Montana Territory, for the townsite of Helena, in trust chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 178 U. S. 206

for the benefit of the occupants. In 1874, Joseph Horsky, Jr., the plaintiff below, defendant in error, became by purchases from prior occupants and conveyances from the probate judge the holder of the legal title to certain lots shown on the plat of the town. He entered into occupation at the date of his purchase, and has been in undisturbed and peaceful possession from that time to the present. Among these lots are two known and described as lots Nos. 19 and 20, in block 37, on the original plat of the townsite. Subsequent surveys disclosed that, measured by the description on the plat and the calls of the deed, there was an extra area of ground 22 feet front by 103 feet deep. When that fact was discovered, the grantor of the plaintiff applied to the probate judge for a conveyance of this extra ground, and paid him the requisite price therefor. However, he received no deed at that time, apparently supposing the deeds for lots 19 and 20 would carry the ground, but afterwards, and on December 15, 1888, on application of the plaintiff and upon the basis of the prior application and the payment of the necessary price, the probate judge made a deed to him of that extra area known and described on a subsequent plat as lot 31, block 37. In 1891, he filed his complaint in the District Court of the First Judicial District of the State of Montana setting forth these facts and that the defendant, Patrick Moran, had, on December 11, 1888, obtained from the probate judge a deed for this lot 31, alleging that it was wrongfully obtained, and praying for a decree quieting his title.

The case thus presented was litigated in the state courts for two or three years, passed to the supreme court of the state (13 Mont. 250), where a decree in favor of the plaintiff was reversed, and finally came on for hearing in the district court upon the bill of plaintiff, setting forth the facts as above stated and an amended answer of the defendant, containing these averments: that on the second day of March, 1869, the Probate Judge of Lewis and Clarke County made an entry of the tract of land for the benefit of the occupants of the townsite of Helena; that, prior to the entry of said townsite, a certain placer mining claim had been located within the exterior limits of the tract so entered which included within its boundaries the lot in controversy; chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 178 U. S. 207

that the location had been made pursuant to the laws of the United States, the local laws, and the rules and regulations of the mining district, and all had been done required thereby to make a perfectly valid location of said placer mining claim, and that the title to this mining claim thus located passed to the defendant; that it was a valid and subsisting mining claim at the time of the entry of the land by the probate judge and of the patent to him; that, after the entry of the townsite, and prior to 1874, the defendant left the State of Montana, leaving the mining claim in possession of an agent; that, during his absence, the plaintiff obtained his deeds for the premises referred to, and entered into possession; that when the defendant returned to Montana, he found the plaintiff in possession; that he had ever since been, by the action of the plaintiff, prevented from entering upon or working such mining claim, and that, in December, 1888, finding that no deed had ever been made to the plaintiff for this portion of the property, he obtained in furtherance and protection of his own title a deed from the probate judge, which was the deed referred to in plaintiff's complaint.

Upon these pleadings, a decree was entered by the district court in favor of the plaintiff, quieting his title to the premises. On appeal to the supreme court of the state, this decree was affirmed (21 Mont. 345), whereupon the case was brought on error to this Court.

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