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Opinion of the Court.
charged with the duty of administering the grant and determining what lands did and what did not pass, the only tribunal to which the company could then apply, and upon whose rulings it was bound to act. Many years have passed since the certification, and since the company in reliance upon the title it believed it had acquired has disposed of the lands, and other parties have become interested in and have dealt with the lands as private property. Contracts have been entered into, suits maintained - carried even to this court -- and decrees and judgments entered and rendered in full reliance upon the title supposed to have been conveyed. Surely after such a lapse of time, and after so many transactions in and in respect to these lands, the appellees are justified in saying that they have large claims upon the equitable consideration of the courts.
The first section of the act of 1887 directs the Secretary of the Interior to adjust all railroad land grants in accordance with the decisions of this court; and the second, that upon such adjustment the Attorney General shall commence the proper proceedings to cancel all patents, certification or other evidences of title erroneously issued. If these two sections were all the legislation of Congress bearing upon the subject it might be difficult to sustain the conclusions of the lower courts, or to deny to the Government the relief sought by this bill, for, by the construction placed upon such railroad grants in Kansas Pacific Railway Company v. Dunmeyer, supra, and other cases, these lands did not pass under the railroad grant because at the time of the filing of the map of definite location they were on the records of the department claimed under homestead, and preëmption entries. The lapse of time would be no bar, for statutes of limitation cannot be invoked against the Government.
But these sections are not all the legislation. Congress evidently recognized the fact that notwithstanding any error in certification or patent there might be rights which equitably deserved protection, and that it would not be fitting for the Government to insist upon the letter of the law in disregard of such equitable rights. In the first place, it has distinctly recognized the fact that when there are no adverse
Opinion of the Court.
individual rights, and only the claims of the Government and of the present holder of the title to be considered, it is fitting that a time should come when no mere errors or irregularities on the part of the officers of the land department should be open for consideration. In other words, it has recognized that, as against itself in respect to these land transactions, it is right that there should be a statute of limitations; that when its proper officers, acting in the ordinary course of their duties, have conveyed away lands which belonged to the Government, such conveyances should, after the lapse of a prescribed time, be conclusive against the Government, and this notwithstanding any errors, irregularities or improper action of its officers therein.
Thus, in the act of 1891, it provided that suits to vacate and annul patents theretofore issued should only be brought within five years, and that as to patents thereafter to be issued such suits should only be brought within six years after the date of issue. Under the benign influence of this statute it would matter not what the mistake or error of the land department was, what the frauds and misrepresentations of the patentee were, the patent would become conclusive as a transfer of the title, providing only that the land was public land of the United States and open to sale and conveyance through the land department. The act of 1896 extended the time for the bringing of suits for patents theretofore issued for five years from the passage of that act. It is true that these appellees cannot avail themselves of these limitations because this suit was commenced before the expiration of the time prescribed, and we only refer to them as showing the purpose of Congress to uphold titles arising under certification or patent by providing that after a certain time the Government, the grantor therein, should not be heard to question them.
But limitation was not the only protection given. The act of 1896, which extended the period of limitation, followed such extention with this provision : “But no patent to any lands held by a bona fide purchaser shall be vacated or annulled, but the right and title of such purchaser is hereby confirmed.” It is true this act was passed after the commencement of this
Opinion of the Court.
suit - indeed, after the decision by the Court of Appeals — but it is none the less an act to be considered. There can be no question of the power of Congress to terminate, by appropriate legislation, any suit brought to assert simply the rights of the Government. This suit was instituted by the Attorney General in obedience to the direct command of Congress, as expressed in the act of 1887, and Congress could at any time prior to the final decree in this court direct the withdrawal of such suit; and it accomplishes practically the same result when, by legislation within the unquestioned scope of its powers, it confirms in the defendants the title to the property which it was the purpose of the suit to recover. So, if this act of 1896, taken by itself alone, or in conjunction with preceding legislation, operates to confirm the title apparently conveyed by the certification to the State for the benefit of the railroad company, that necessarily terminates this suit adversely to the Government, and compels an affirmance of the decisions of the lower courts without the necessity of any inquiry into the reasons advanced by those courts for their conclusions. We are of the opinion that Congress intended by the sentence we have quoted from the act of 1896 to confirm the title which in this case passed by certification to the State. It not only declares that no patents to any lands held by a bona fide purchaser shall be vacated or annulled, but it confirms the right and title of such purchasers. Given a bona fide purchaser, his right and title is confirmed, and no suit can be maintained at the instance of the Government to disturb it.
It is earnestly contended by the Government that the present holders of the title are not "bona fide purchasers"; that that term has a fixed and well-defined meaning, as announced in the frequent decisions of this and other courts; that, as said in 2 Pom. Eq. Jur. $ 745, “the essential elements which constitute a bona fide purchaser are, therefore, three — a valuable consideration, the absence of notice, and presence of good faith”; United States v. California &c. Land Company, 148 U. S. 31, 42; that while two of these essential elements may be found, to wit, a valuable consideration and the presence of good faith, the third, the absence of notice, is lacking; that all men are
Opinion of the Court.
conclusively presumed to know the law, and that as the true rule of construction in reference to these grants was laid down by this court, the purchasers were bound to know such true rule; that the records of the land office disclosed the existence of these homestead entries and preëmption filings, and, therefore, they who purchased from the railroad company knew, or at least were chargeable with knowledge, of the fact that those lands could not rightfully have been certified to the railroad company but were excepted from the terms of grant, and in fact remained the property of the Government. It is further insisted that, as Congress in this statute used this well understood expression, it intended only the protection of such parties as came within the scope of this settled meaning. It is said that the only cases to be covered by this provision were those in which the State or the railroad company by presentation to the land office, before the filing of the map
of definite location, of a forged relinquishment by the preëmptor, or one having made a homestead entry, or by some other fraudulent representations, secured a certification or patent to the tracts, and thereafter sold and conveyed to one who purchased in ignorance of the fraud.
We are unable to agree with this contention of counsel, for several reasons :- In the first place, the situation as it was known to exist makes against any such narrow construction. While instances of such fraudulent conduct on the part of the State to which the lands were certified, or the company to which the lands were patented, might exist, yet in the nature of things they would be few and hardly worth the special notice of Congress, while on the other hand the fact that there had been a difference between the land department and the courts, one construction obtaining in the former prior to the decisions by the latter, and the further fact that by this difference of construction many tracts had been erroneously certified or patented, must have been well known to Congress, and naturally therefore a subject for its legislation. Further, there was no need of any legislation to protect a “bona fide purchaser." This had been settled by repeated decisions of this court. United States v. Burlington & Missouri River Rail
Opinion of the Court.
road Company, 98 U. S. 334, 342; Colorado Coal Company v. United States, 123 U. S. 307, 313 — reaffirmed in United States v. California &c. Land Company, 148 U. S. 31, 41. For in each of those cases it was decided that, although a patent was fraudulently and wrongfully obtained from the Government, if the land conveyed was within the jurisdiction of the land department, the title of a bona fide purchaser from the patentee could not be disturbed by the Government, so that this provision was absolutely unnecessary if that which is now claimed by counsel for the Government is all that was intended by Congress. We do not mean to assert that because legislation to cover such a contingency was unnecessary, there fore the language used by Congress necessarily implies something other and different, because of course it may have been that Congress intended nothing but a simple declaration of the law as it was known to exist. At the same time the fact, that under one construction it was needless, raises a presumption that something more was intended, and that Congress had in view the protection of other parties than were already protected by general law.
But we need not rest on these inferences and presumptions. Other provisions of the acts of 1887 and 1896 make clear the intent of Congress. Section 3 of the act of 1887 provides that if the homestead or preëmption entry of any bona fide settler has been erroneously cancelled on account of any railroad grant it may be reinstated, provided he has not located another claim or made an entry in lieu of the one so cancelled, and also did not voluntarily abandon such entry. By this section Congress provided for a reinstating of the title of one deprived thereof by an erroneous ruling of the land department, but, at the same time, limited the right of reinstating to cases in which the original entryman had not voluntarily abandoned his entry, or had not since that time made a new entry. In other words, it was limiting the restoration of the title of the original entryman to cases in which he had a continuing and present equitable right to recognition. As to all other cases, Congress reserved the determination of the equities between the Government, the railroad company and pur