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U.S. Supreme Court

Oregon & California Railroad Co. v. United States, 238 U.S. 393 (1915)

Oregon & California Railroad Company v. United States

No. 679

Argued April 23, 26, 27, 1915

Decided June 21, 1915

238 U.S. 393


Where there are doubts whether a clause be a covenant or condition, courts will incline against the latter, and, as a general principle, a court of equity is reluctant to lend its aid to enforce a forfeiture. The provisos in the Land Grant Act of July 25, 1866, as amended June 25, 1868, and April 10, 1869, and in the Act of May 4, 1870, to the effect that the lands granted must be sold by railroad companies chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 238 U. S. 394

only to actual settlers in quantities not exceeding 160 acres to each and at a price not exceeding two dollars and fifty cents per acre, are not conditions subsequent, the violation of which result in forfeiture of the grants, but are covenants which are enforceable. This suit, under such circumstances, becomes one to enforce the covenants, and not to annul the patents.

The fact that the actions of the railroad companies in connection with the lands granted were known to the government officials and that no action was taken by the government in regard thereto does not amount to an estoppel against the government so that it cannot now enforce the covenants.

Acts of Congress granting lands are laws as well as grants, and are operative until repealed; the fact that the conditions imposed in the grant were not applicable to the character of the lands furnishes no excuse for antagonistic action, even though it might justify nonaction pending further legislation.

The delay in the assertion of a right is not conclusive against its existence, although there may be argument in it.

Under the acts involved, there was a complete grant to the railroad company with power to sell limited only as prescribed, and cross-complainants and intervenors who have set up alleged rights in the lands by reason of settlement thereon cannot sustain their claims thereto. Nor can there be an absolute right to purchase and settle on lands where there is no compulsion to sell.

The words "actual settlers" indicate no particular individuals, and the uncertainty of the expression prevents any individual from being a cestui que trust to enforce the condition of the statute.

In construing land grant statutes, the courts cannot, even at the instance of the government, give a greater sanction to them than Congress intended, nor can the courts give to any parties rights which the statutes did not confer upon them.

As the conditions contained in the grant are enforceable, the railroad company is enjoined from further violating them, but as conditions have changed since the grant was made, the company is further enjoined from making any disposition of the land or cutting or removing the timber thereon until Congress shall have a reasonable opportunity to provide for their disposition by legislation, and in case after six months Congress shall not have acted, the company may apply to the district court for a modification of the decree.

This writ brings up for review a decision of the United States District Court for the District of Oregon decreeing chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 238 U. S. 395

the forfeiture of the unsold portion of certain lands granted by Congress to certain railroad companies, and quieting the title of the United States thereto.

In consequence of a memorial presented to it, Congress, on April 30, 1908, adopted a joint resolution which authorized and directed the Attorney General of the United States to institute and prosecute any and all suits in equity, actions at law, or other proceedings, to enforce any rights or remedies of the United States arising and growing out of either of the following acts of Congress, to-wit: "An Act Granting Lands to Aid in the Construction of a Railroad and Telegraph Line from the Central Pacific Railroad in California, to Portland, in Oregon," approved July 25, 1866, 14 Stat. 239, c. 242, as amended by the Acts approved June 25, 1868, 15 Stat. 80, c. 80, and April 10, 1869, 16 Stat. 47, c. 27, and "An Act Granting Lands to Aid in the Construction of a Railroad and Telegraph Line from Portland to Astoria and McMinville, in the State of Oregon," approved May 4, 1870, 16 Stat. 94, c. 69.

The Attorney General was empowered to assert all rights and remedies existing in favor of the United States, including the claim on behalf of the United States that the lands granted by such acts, or any part of the lands, have been or are forfeited to the United States by reason of any breaches or violations of the terms or conditions of either of such acts which may be alleged or established in such suits, actions, or proceedings.

The resolution declared that it was not intended to determine the right of the United States to any such forfeiture or forfeitures, but to fully authorize the Attorney General to assert on behalf of the United States, and the court or courts before which such suits, actions, or proceedings might be instituted or pending, to entertain, consider, and adjudicate the claim and right of the United States to such forfeiture or forfeitures, and, if found, to enforce the same. 35 Stat. 571. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 238 U. S. 396

Being so authorized, the United States brought this suit as complainant against the Oregon & California Railroad Company, the Southern Pacific Company, Stephen T. Gage (individually and as trustee), the Union Trust Company (individually and as trustee), John L. Snyder, and certain others as defendants, to declare forfeited to the United States lands of the Oregon & California Railroad Company aggregating 2,300,000 acres which inured to the predecessors in interest of the company under the acts of Congress referred to in the resolution.

The bill set forth the acts of Congress and alleged that it was expressed that neither the amendatory Act of April 10, 1869, nor the Act of 1866 should be construed to entitle more than one company to the grant of land, and that following such provision, which was in the Act of 1869, there was this proviso:

"And provided further, That the lands granted by the act aforesaid [Act of 1866] shall be sold to actual settlers only, in quantities not greater than one quarter section to one purchaser, and for a price not exceeding two dollars and fifty cents per acre."

That the Act of May 4, 1870, also contained the provision (§ 4) that the lands granted thereby, excepting only such as were necessary for depots and other needful uses in operating the road, should

"be sold by the company only to actual settlers, in quantities not exceeding one hundred and sixty acres or a quarter section to any one settler, and at prices not exceeding two dollars and fifty cents per acre."