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decided: May 31, 1927.



Taft, Holmes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Sanford, Stone

Author: Stone

[ 274 U.S. Page 642]

 MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a second suit by the United States, and is in aid of the first, for the restoration to the government of some fifty-five hundred acres of public lands located in Utah, title to which was procured by a fraud perpetrated upon the land officers of the United States. The first suit, which resulted in a judgment for the government (affirmed 228 Fed. 431), was predicated upon the following circumstances.

The United States, in 1894, made a grant of public lands to the State of Utah to aid in the establishment of an agricultural college, certain schools and asylums and for other purposes. (§§ 8 and 10, Act of July 16, 1894, c. 138, 28 Stat. 107, 109, 110.) Mineral lands were not included. See Milner v. United States, 228 Fed. 431, 439; United States v. Sweet, 245 U.S. 563; Mullan v. United States, 118 U.S. 271, 276; § 2318 R. S. The grant was not of lands in place. Selections were to be made by the state with the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, from unappropriated public lands, in such manner as the legislature should provide. The legislature (Laws, Utah, 1896, c. 80) later created a board of land commissioners with general supervisory powers over the disposition of the lands and with authority to select particular lands under the grants.

During the period from December 10, 1900, to September 14, 1903, Milner and others, the predecessors in interest of the Carbon County Land Company, one of the petitioners, made several applications to the State Commission to select and obtain in the name of the state the lands now in question, and at the same time entered

[ 274 U.S. Page 643]

     into agreements with the Commission to purchase the lands from the state. In aid of the applications and agreements, Milner and his associates filed affidavits with the Commission stating that they were acquainted with the character of these lands which they affirmed were nonmineral and did not contain deposits of coal. They also deposed that the applications were not made for the purpose of fraudulently obtaining mineral holdings, but to acquire the land for agricultural use. The applicants were obviously aware that the affidavits or the information contained in them would in due course be submitted to the Land Office of the United States with the State Commission's selections, as they were in fact. On the faith of these and other documents, the selections were approved by the Secretary of the Interior and the tracts in question were certified to the state on various dates, the last being in December, 1904. Certification was the mode of passing title from the United States to the state.

In January, 1907, the United States brought the first suit, against Milner and his associates and the Carbon County Land Company, which had been organized by Milner to take over the land, and was controlled by him. The suit was founded on the charge that the certifications were procured by the fraudulent misrepresentations of Milner and the others since they knew at the time of the applications that the lands contained coal deposits. Although the bill in the present case states that the relief asked was the cancellation of the contracts between the state and Milner and his associates, this allegation is apparently inadvertent, for the record elsewhere indicates that the bill in fact sought the quieting of the government's title. It affirmatively appears that on June 8, 1914, the district court entered a decree declaring that the United States "is the owner" and "entitled to the possession" of the lands in question and that the defendants

[ 274 U.S. Page 644]

     "have no right, title or interest, or right of possession," and perpetually enjoining them "from setting up or making any claim to or upon said premises." The Court of Appeals, in affirming the decree, held that "the whole transaction was a scheme or conspiracy on the part of Milner to fraudulently obtain the ownership of the lands from the United States."

In bringing suit in this form without making the State of Utah a party, it is evident that the government relied on the principles announced in Williams v. United States, 138 U.S. 514. In that case it was held, on a similar state of facts, that the State of Nevada was not a necessary party to the suit and that the contract between it and its purchaser operated to vest the equitable interest in the lands in him, the legal interest being retained as security for the purchase price. This Court said:

"The State of Nevada might have intervened. It did not; doubtless, because it felt it had no real interest. It was no intentional party to any wrong upon the general government. If its agency had been used by the wrongdoer to obtain title from the general government; if, conscious of no wrong on its part, it had obtained from the general government the legal title and conveyed it away to the alleged wrong-doer, it might justly say that it had no interest in the controversy, and that it would leave to the determination of the courts the question of right between the government and the alleged wrong-doer, and conform its subsequent action to that determination. That certainly is the dignified and proper course to be pursued ...

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