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Opinion of the Court.
agree with the Court of Appeals that the showing made in his bill is not one that appeals in the slightest degree to the conscience of a chancellor. The theory upon which the appellant proceeds is substantially that because he has not a legal title a court of equity must enforce and establish his right, or, in other words, that the lack of legal title creates an equitable duty. We are unable to assent to this contention. Something more than the absence of legal title is necessary to call into action the processes of a court of equity. The right, whatever it may be and from what source derived, must be not only one not protected by legal title, but in and of itself appealing to the conscience of a chancellor. A court of equity acts only when and as conscience commands, and if the conduct of the plaintiff be offensive to the dictates of natural justice, then, whatever may be the rights he possesses and whatever use he may make of them in a court of law, he will be held remediless in a court of equity.
Upon his own showing the plaintiff's conduct demands condemnation rather than commendation. The title to vacant land within the States that originally formed the United States remained in those States severally, while the title to land subsequently acquired by the United States, whether through cession from the original States, by conquest or treaty, has been retained by the General Government — lands within the State of Texas furnishing the one notable exception. Though Congress on the admission of the new States has not transferred to them the vacant lands within their limits, it has made to them large grants for school and other purposes. In carrying out this policy, in 1841 Congress passed an act granting to certain named States and to each State subsequently admitted into the Union 500,000 acres of land to aid in internal improvements, the selection of such lands to be made in such manner as the legislatures of the respective States should provide. Such selections were subject to the approval of the land department of the United States, but when so made and approved the lands were to be certified to the State, and such certification was to have all the effect of a patent. Now, assuming that the contention of the plaintiff is correct, that
Opinion of the Court.
subsequent legislation of Congress had the effect of providing that such selection should be made from certain classes of lands, and that the tract in controversy did not belong to any of those classes, the fact remains that the land was selected by the State, and such selection approved by the land department, and that the land so selected and thereafter certified was land belonging to the United States. At the time of such selection and certification the only parties in interest were the United States and the State. Concede the fact that, through inadvertence, mistake or (of which there is no evidence) wrong on the part of the officials, this land was improperly selected and certified, yet the United States for thirteen years never questioned in any way the rightfulness of the selection and certification, or challenged the title which was apparently confirmed thereby to the State. It may be conceded that no error or wrong on the part of the officers of the land department concludes the United States, and that they might whenever they saw fit by proper proceedings set aside the title thus apparently conveyed. But they took no steps. They acquiesced in the transaction. The land was land which the United States had power to convey. Congress could by special act or otherwise have transferred this specific tract to the State. The records of the transaction were public and open. It was no secret conveyance by which title was wrongfully conveyed to the State, but a matter of record of which every body, both governments included, were chargeable with notice. Not only was the title thus apparently transferred unchallenged, but also the State dealt with it as its own property, and conveyed it in satisfaction of one of its contracts. It passed from grantee to grantee, the last sale being at the price of $12 an acre. And further, the State during the years subsequent to its conveyance treated the land as subject to taxation, and they who purchased from it paid taxes thereon amounting to over one thousand dollars.
After all this, the plaintiff, assuming to do that which the United States had not done - that is, treat the selection and certification as void - and acting not for the United States but for himself, attempted to build up a right in himself to
Opinion of the Court.
the land. This was not done in ignorance of the claims of others, for when he first applied to enter the land as a homestead he was notified by the officers of the land department that it had already been selected and certified to the State, and his application to enter was on that account rejected. The county records also notified him of the several conveyances and the amount of money paid by the appellees. He was, therefore, simply an intruder. It is earnestly insisted by counsel that Congress by its legislation has set apart certain classes of land for the benefit of preëmptors and those desiring to enter homesteads; that the Government thereupon, became, as it were, a trustee, holding the title to those lands in trust for all wlio should elect to make themselves cestuis que trust; that the plaintiff, availing himself of this legislation, took the steps prescribed by the statute and made himself therefore a cestui que trust, with a beneficial right to this land, and the right to challenge not only all subsequent but also any prior action taken by his trustee in disregard of such beneficial right. We cannot agree to this contention. Whatever rights such so-called cestui que trust may have against his trustee, the government, or all parties claiming under the government subsequent to the time of the initiation of his proceedings, he is not in a position to challenge any action of his so-called trustee anterior to that time. The Government did not bind itself by its statutes to keep any lands for subsequent occupation and purchase, and if prior to such occupation it has even though mistakenly conveyed away a tract to a third party, such conveyance, although voidable at its instance, cannot be challenged by a mere intruder. And when such conveyance is of long standing, and the transaction has been acquiesced in for many years by the Government, and parties relying upon the title apparently conveyed have invested large sums of money, then an attempt by such an intruder to set aside all these transactions and to appropriate the property to himself is offensive to every sense of right and justice, and equity will lend no helping hand to such effort. The authorities cited in the opinion of the Court of Appeals sustain this conclusion. Cooper v. Roberts, 18 How.
Opinion of the Court.
173; Spencer v. Lapsley, 20 Ilow. 264; Cragin v. Powell, 128 U. S. 691. This last case is quite pertinent. It appeared that in 1841 the United States had issued to one Bach patents to certain surveyed and described lands, the title to which by subsequent conveyances passed to Cragin. In 1877, Powell, a surveyor, was employed by Cragin to make a survey of his property, and discovering as he supposed an error by which lands apparently included within the survey and patent were,
, in fact, outside of its limits, persuaded one Samuel Wolf to obtain a patent which would cover the lands thus erroneously, as contended, included in the first survey, and afterwards purchased those lands from Wolf. Thereupon he commenced a suit “to fix the boundaries,” the effect of which if the boundary was established according to his claim would be to set over to him lands which, as he alleged, were erroneously included in the first survey and patent, but which had been all these years occupied and cultivated by Bach, the patentee, and his grantees. A decree in his favor in the Circuit Court was reversed, and the case remanded with instructions to dismiss the bill, Mr. Justice Lamar saying in the opinion (p. 700):
“The appellee, Powell, is a surveyor, who, in the year 1877, while employed by appellant to make a survey of his plantation, thought he discovered an error in the public lands, whereby it would appear that his lands were not, in fact, situated on Bayou Four Points. From his own evidence it is shown that he induced Wolf to obtain the patent from the State of Louisiana for the land which he, the said appellee, purchased from him. When he purchased this land from Wolf he knew that the tracts to which he was laying claim had been possessed and cultivated by the appellant for a long period of years."
“ An advantage thus obtained a court of equity will not readily enforce. As was said in Taylor v. Brown, 5 Cranch, 234, 256 : ‘The terms of the subsequent location prove that the locator considered himself as comprehending Taylor's previous entry within his location.
He either did not mean to acquire the land within Taylor's entry, or he is to be considered as a man watching for the accidental mistakes of
others, and preparing to take advantage of them. What is gained at law by a person of this description equity will not take from him; but it does not follow that equity will aid his views.'»
Without, therefore, determining whether the selection and certification of these lands was absolutely void or simply voidable at the election of the Government, or valid and beyond any right of challenge on the part of the Government or any one else, we are of the opinion that equity will not help the plaintiff in his suit, and the decree of the Court of Appeals is
GLOVER v. PATTEN.
APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF THE DISTRICT OF
No. 78. Argued January 5, 6, 1897. -- Decided February 15, 1897.
An infant may affirm a contract or settlement made for her benefit, like the
one here in controversy, and may sue upon it as if she were originally a
party to it. In a suit by children to establish their rights as creditors of the estate of
their deceased mother other creditors are not necessary parties, as the
executors or administrators represent them and guard their interests. The bill in this case, filed by direction of the orphans' court to obtain the
advice of a court of chancery upon the rights of the respective parties,
discloses on its face a good cause of action in equity. That cause of action is not barred by the Maryland statute of limitations,
still in force in the District of Columbia. Where a parent, being a debtor to his child, makes an advancement to the
child, it is presumed to be a satisfaction pro tanto of the debt. In a suit between devisees under a will, statements made by the deceased
to counsel respecting the execution of the will, or other similar document,
are not privileged. The objection that the complainants were incompetent to testify as to their
mother's statements, and as to transactions in which she took part is entitled to some weight and is not free from doubt; but such testimony
is not indispensable to the maintenance of the complainants' bill. The general bequest to her daughters in the mother's will was not an ex
tinguishment of her debt to them. No interest should be allowed prior to the mother's death.