United States v. Chavez , 175 U.S. 509 ( 1899 )

  • 175 U.S. 509 (1899)


    Nos. 38, 39.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued October 16, 17, 1899.
    Decided December 18, 1899.

    *518 Mr. William H. Pope for appellants. Mr. Solicitor General and Mr. Matthew G. Reynolds were on his brief.

    Mr. Frank W. Clancy for appellees.

    MR. JUSTICE McKENNA, after making the above statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

    The title asserted by appellees is deficient in the support of direct evidence. Is the deficiency supplied by the probative force of the possession of the land? Private ownership of the property with possession is claimed for over one hundred and thirty years before the cession of the territory to the United


    *520 States. A continuous possession is shown from some time prior to 1785, inferentially from 1716. Mexico respected that ownership and possession for the full period of its dominion over New Mexico. Spain respected them for over one hundred years, and at the time of the cession of the sovereignty over the territory to the United States no one questioned them. Succeeding to the power and obligations of those Governments, must the United States do so? This is insisted by their counsel, and yet they have felt and expressed the equities which arise from the circumstances of the case. Whence arise those equities? That which establishes them may establish title. Upon a long and uninterrupted possession, the law bases presumptions as sufficient for legal judgment, in the absence of rebutting circumstances, as formal instruments, or records, or articulate testimony. Not that formal instruments or records are unnecessary, but it will be presumed that they once existed and have been lost. The inquiry then recurs, do such presumptions arise in this case and do they solve its questions?

    Fletcher v. Fuller, 120 U.S. 534, was an action of ejectment. Both parties claimed the land in controversy under one Francis Richardson, who died in 1750; the plaintiffs under his daughter, Abigail Fuller; the defendants under his grandson. The question arose whether a deed could be presumed to have been executed by Abigail Fuller to the grandson or to his father, uniting all interests in him. It was presented in instructions. The defendants asked an instruction that the jury might presume the execution of such a deed to their ancestor in title. The court refused, and instructed the jury as follows: "Of course, gentlemen, if you find that you can presume a grant, if you find from the testimony that there was a lost deed which passed from Abigail Fuller to Jeremiah Richardson, or to Francis Richardson, and the property was inherited by Jeremiah, so that Jeremiah had a good title to convey to Stephen Jencks, that makes the title of the defendants here complete . . . But, gentlemen, you are to look into the evidence upon this question of a grant, and if the evidence in favor of the presumption is overcome *521 by the evidence against such grant, then, of course, you will not presume one. It is a question of testimony."

    The defendants requested the court to instruct the jury "that the presumption they were authorized to make of a lost deed was not necessarily restricted to what may fairly be supposed to have occurred, but rather to what may have occurred, and seems requisite to quiet title in the possessor." The instruction was refused, and on error to this court it said, through Mr. Justice Field, that the purport of the charge was in effect "that in order to presume a lost deed the jury must be satisfied that such a deed had in fact actually existed; . . . therein was error.

    "In such cases `presumptions,' as said by Sir William Grant, `do not always proceed on a belief that the thing presumed has actually taken place. Grants are frequently presumed, as Lord Mansfield says, Eldridge v. Knott, Cowp. 215, merely for the purpose and from a principle of quieting possession. There is as much occasion for presuming conveyances of legal estates, as otherwise titles must forever remain imperfect and in many respects unavailable, when from length of time it has become impossible to discover in whom the legal estate (if outstanding) is actually vested.' Hillary v. Waller, 12 Ves. 239, 252."

    And quoting Mr. Justice Story in Richard v. Williams, 7 Wheat. 59, 119, "`a grant of land may as well be presumed as a grant of a fishery, or of common, or of a way. Presumptions of this nature are adopted from the general infirmity of human nature, the difficulty of preserving muniments of title, and the public policy of supporting long and uninterrupted possessions. They are founded upon the consideration that the facts are such as could not, according to the ordinary course of human affairs, occur, unless there was a transmutation of title to, or an admission of an existing adverse title in, the party in possession.' It is not necessary, therefore, in the cases mentioned, for the jury, in order to presume a conveyance, to believe that a conveyance was in point of fact executed. It is sufficient if the evidence leads to the conclusion that the conveyance might have been executed, and that its *522 existence would be a solution of the difficulties arising from its non-execution." And, further quoting from the Supreme Court of Tennessee in Williams v. Donell, 2 Head, 695, 697, "`it is not indispensable, in order to lay a proper foundation for the legal presumption of a grant, to establish a probability of the fact that in reality a grant was ever issued. It will afford a sufficient ground for the presumption to show that, by legal possibility, a grant might have been issued. And this appearing, it may be assumed in the absence of circumstances repelling such conclusion that all that might lawfully have been done to perfect the legal title was in fact done, and in the form prescribed by law.'"

    These principles were affirmed as applicable to grants of the kind we are considering in United States v. Chaves, 159 U.S. 452. Mr. Justice Shiras, speaking for the court, said:

    "Without going at length into the subject, it may be safely said that by the weight of authority, as well as the preponderance of opinion, it is the general rule of American law that a grant will be presumed upon proof of an adverse, exclusive and uninterrupted possession for twenty years, and that such rule will be applied as a presumptio juris et de jure, whenever by possibility a right may be acquired in any manner known to the law. 1 Greenleaf Ev. 12th ed. § 17; Ricard v. Williams, 7 Wheat. 59, 109; Coolidge v. Learned, 8 Pick. 503. Nothing, it is true, can be claimed by prescription which owes its origin to, and can only be had by, matter of record; but lapse of time, accompanied by acts done or other circumstances, may warrant the jury in presuming a grant or title by record. Thus, also, though lapse of time does not of itself furnish a conclusive bar to the title of the sovereign, agreeably to the maxim, nullum tempus occurrit regi; yet if the adverse claim could have had a legal commencement, juries are advised or instructed to presume such commencement, after many years of uninterrupted possession or enjoyment. Accordingly royal grants have been thus found by the jury, after an indefinitely long-continued peaceful enjoyment accompanied by the usual acts of ownership. 1 Greenleaf Ev. § 45.

    *523 "The principle upon which this doctrine rests is one of general jurisprudence, and is recognized in the Roman law and the codes founded thereon, Best's Principles of Evidence, § 366, and was, therefore, a feature of the Mexican law at the time of the cession."

    The application of these principles to the case at bar does not need many directing words.

    It is contended by the Government that no juridical possession is shown under the grant to the southern portion of the tract; that there is no grant shown to Sedillo of the northern portion of the tract; that admitting both are shown there is no evidence that the title which Don Diego Borrego received in 1734 was conveyed to Clemente Gutierrez, who was shown to have had the possession claiming title in 1785. To infer all these things, it is argued, is to build presumption on presumption, and carry constructive proof too far. The argument is not formidable. The instances mentioned are of the same kind as those in the cited cases, and the principle of the cases is not limited or satisfied by the presumption of only one step in the title. It requires the presumption of all that may be necessary to the repose of the title — to the absolute assurance and quietude of the possession. Quoting the language of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, approved by this court, it assumes that all "that might lawfully have been done to perfect the legal title was in fact done and in the form prescribed by law." And, "There is hardly a species of act or document, public or private, that will not be presumed in support of possession. Even acts of Parliament may thus be presumed, as also will grants from the crown." Best on Presumptions, sec. 109.

    The number of steps presumed does not make the principle different, and whether it would give more strength to rebutting testimony we might be concerned to consider if there was any such testimony.

    We think there can be but one conclusion in the case. The possession of the land began in wrong or began in right. If in wrong, it must be shown. The maxims of the law declare the other way. Besides it is admitted that the Pueblo of Iseleta *524 has had open and notorious possession as far back as the memory of the oldest living inhabitant can extend, and that it was claimed under the heirs of Clemente Gutierrez, and evidenced by documents which came from the custody and control of the officers who have had them during like memory. Back to Clemente Gutierrez, therefore, a continuous possession is established by admission and by testimony not contradicted. Back beyond the period of living memory and beyond that period the title needs no inquiry for its validity and repose.

    But there is some documentary evidence coming from a remoter time, and it has been discussed by counsel. We do not think it is necessary to consider it at any length. It consists of the original grant to Antonio Gutierrez, three instruments of conveyance, one reciting the grant to Sedillo, and all asserting ownership and possession of the lands, and an inventory made of the estate of Clemente Gutierrez by the governor of New Mexico, then an official of Spain. The latter was made a judicial record, and the lands mentioned in it distributed among the heirs. It is to this possession that the appellees trace, as we have seen, and the questions which can arise about it — from whom derived and the rightfulness or wrongfulness of it — depend upon principles already sufficiently discussed. It is enough to say that Clemente Gutierrez died in possession, and his possession was proof of ownership.

    It is further contended by the Government that the record shows that the appellees do not hold the interests of all of the heirs of Clemente Gutierrez, and that, therefore, the Court of Private Land Claims should have confirmed the grant, "not to the claimants appearing before it, but to the `assigns and legal representatives of the original grantee.'" And it is urged that "to make a decree in any other form is to `conclude and affect the private rights of persons as between each other,' and this the statute [of 1891] prohibits."

    We do not concur in this view of the statute. By careful distinction it precludes such view. Section 8 of the statute under which the petitions were presented provides that persons claiming lands under a Spanish or Mexican title "that *525 was complete and perfect at the date when the United States acquired sovereignty therein shall have the right (but shall not be bound) to apply to said court in the manner in this act provided for in other cases for confirmation of such title;" but the confirmation of such title "shall be for so much land only as such perfect title shall be found to cover, always excepting any part of such land that shall have been disposed of by the United States, and always subject to and not to affect any conflicting private interests, rights or claims held or claimed adversely to any such claim or title, or adversely to the holder of any such claim or title. And no confirmation of claims or titles in this section mentioned shall have any effect other or further than as a release of all claim of title by the United States; and no private right of any person, as between himself and other claimants or persons in respect of any such lands, shall be in any manner affected thereby."

    It will be observed that the provision is that from the confirmation there shall be excepted land that shall have been disposed of by the United States. It is, however, made subject to "conflicting private interests, rights or claims." The distinction is obvious, and the reason for it equally so. The proceeding is not a litigation between conflicting private interests; it is one against the United States, and determinative only of the title against the United States. To avoid confusion the lands that have been disposed of by the United States are required to be excepted from confirmation. To all other interests and claims the confirmation is made subject. The forum for their determination is the ordinary courts. Ainsa v. New Mexico & Arizona Railroad, ante, 76; and United States v. Conway, ante, 60; both decided at the present term.

    Decree affirmed.