Messrs. Edgar H. Farrar and John D. Wilkinson for plaintiff in error.
Mr. Walter Guion, Attorney General of Louisiana, and Mr. W. P. Hall for defendant in error.
Mr. Justice Van Devanter delivered the opinion of the court:
This was a suit by the state of Louisiana against the [224 U.S. 632, 633] Cross Lake Shooting and Fishing Club, to recover about 11,000 acres of land, in the parish of Caddo, in that state, of which the fishing club was in possession, and to which it was asserting title, under a sale and deed made to its remote grantors by the board of commissioners of the Caddo levee district. Although defeated in the district court, the state prevailed in the supreme court, and there obtained a final judgment in its favor. 123 La. 208, 48 So. 891. The fishing club has brought the case here, claiming that the judgment gave effect to a state law which impinged upon the contract clause of the Constitution of the United States.
The facts are these: By act No. 74 of 1892, the legislature of the state created the Caddo levee district, defined its boundaries, vested the control and management of its affairs in a board of commissioners, clothed the board with corporate powers, and made to it a grant of state lands in the following terms:
The lands in question were within the district so created, and at the date of the act were owned by the state, but whether it had acquired them as swamp lands, under the legislation of Congress (Acts March 2, 1849, 9 Stat. at L. 352, chap. 87; September 28, 1850, 9 Stat. at L. 519, chap. 84 ), or as the bed of what was a nevigable lake when the state was admitted into the Union (see Pollard v. Hagan, 3 How. 212, 11 L. ed. 565), is left uncertain. For present purposes, however, this uncertainty may be disregarded and the state's title treated as resting on the swamp-land grant by Congress, as was claimed by the fishing club in the state courts. No instrument conveying the lands to the board of the levee district was ever executed by the state auditor or the register of the state land office, or recorded in the recorder's office of the parish. But in 1895 the board sold and deeded the lands to the remote grantors of the fishing club for the agreed price of $1,100, or 10 cents per acre, which was deposited in a bank under an agreement whereby it would be payable to the board whenever the latter should perfect the title by obtaining a conveyance from the auditor and register. Such a conveyance was not obtained, and in December, 1901, the grantees in the deed requested the board to complete the title, and in that connection offered to pay $3,500 more for the lands; whereupon the board adopted a resolution accepting the offer, and authorizing its president to take proper steps to perfect the title. But it does not appear that the additional sum was either paid or tendered or that anything was done under the resolution.
In July, 1902, the legislature of the state passed an act (Laws of 1902, No. 171, p. 324) authorizing the register of the state land office to sell these lands at not less than $5 per acre, nor in greater quantities than 320 acres to [224 U.S. 632, 636] any one person, directing that the proceeds of such sales be placed to the credit of the board of the levee district, and containing the following repealing provision:
This suit was brought in 1906. The petition made no mention of the act of 1902, but proceeded upon the theory, among others, that under 9 of act No. 74 of 1892, supra, the board of the levee district was wholly without authority to sell or otherwise dispose of the lands until a proper instrument conveying them to the board had been executed by the auditor and register and duly recorded in the recorder's office of the parish, and that, as no such instrument had been executed or recorded, the sale and deed by the board, under which the fishing club was asserting title, were unauthorized and void. The answer, which was also silent respecting the act of 1902, alleged, in substance, that the act of 1892 was a grant in proesenti of the lands, and operated to transfer them to the board of the levee district without any conveyance from the auditor and register; that the fishing club's grantors purchased on the faith of that act; and that to permit the state to retake the lands would impair the obligation of its contract embraced in the act.
At the hearing in the district court, counsel for the state placed some reliance upon the act of 1902, but the court ruled that the act of 1892 was a grant in proesenti of all lands falling within its terms other than those acquired through tax sales; that the provision requiring convey- [224 U.S. 632, 637] ances from the auditor and register related only to lands acquired through such sales; that, as the lands in suit had not been acquired in that way, the sale and deed by the board to the fishing club's grantors were authorized and valid, even although there was no conveyance from the auditor and register; and that the rights acquired thereby were not devested or affected by the subsequent act of 1902. The record does not disclose that there was any reliance upon that act in the supreme court, and yet it was practically conceded in argument here that there was. But, whether relied upon or not, the act was mentioned in the statement preceding the court's opinion, and was not otherwise noticed or treated as a factor in the decision. The court held that the act of 1892 was not a grant in proesenti; that a conveyance from the auditor and register was essential to invest the board with any disposable title; and that, in the absence of such a conveyance, the sale and deed by the board were wholly unauthorized and void. Upon that subject the court said:
Then, after proceeding with an analysis and interpreta- [224 U.S. 632, 638] tion of the provisions of 9 of the act of 1892, it was further said:
With this statement of the case, we come to consider whether it presents any question under that clause of the Constitution which declares: 'No state shall . . . pass any . . . law impairing the obligation of contracts.' This clause, as its terms disclose, is not directed against all impairment of contract obligations, but only against such as results from a subsequent exertion of the legislative power of the state. It does not reach mere errors committed by a state court when passing upon the validity or effect of a contract under the laws in existence when it was made. And so, while such errors may oporate to impair the obligation of the contract, they do not give rise to a Federal question. But when the state court, [224 U.S. 632, 639] either expressly or by necessary implication, gives effect to a subsequent law of the state whereby the obligation of the contract is alleged to be impaired, a Federal question is presented. In such a case it becomes our duty to take jurisdiction and to determine the existence and validity of the contract, what obligations arose from it, and whether they are impaired by the subsequent law. But if there be no such law, or if no effect be given to it by the state court, we cannot take jurisdiction, no matter how earnestly it may be insisted that that court erred in its conclusion respecting the validity or effect of the contract; and this is true even where it is asserted, as it is here, that the judgment is not in accord with prior decisions on the faith of which the rights in question were acquired. Knox v. Exchange Bank, 12 Wall. 379, 383, 20 L. ed. 414, 415; Central Land Co. v. Laidley, 159 U.S. 103, 111 , 112 S., 40 L. ed. 91, 94, 95, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 80; Bacon v. Texas, 163 U.S. 207, 220 , 221 S., 41 L. ed. 132, 137, 138, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1023; Turner v. Wilkes County, 173 U.S. 461 , 43 L. ed. 768, 19 Sup. Ct. Rep. 464; National Mut. Bldg. & L. Asso. v. Brahan, 193 U.S. 635, 647 , 48 S. L. ed. 823, 828, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 532; Louisiana ex rel. Hubert v. New Orleans, 215 U.S. 170, 175 , 54 S. L. ed. 144, 147, 30 Sup. Ct. Rep. 40; Fisher v. New Orleans, 218 U.S. 438 , 54 L. ed. 1099, 31 Sup. Ct. Rep. 57; Missouri & K. Interurban R. Co. v. O'Lathe, 222 U.S. 187 , 56 L. ed. 156, 32 Sup. Ct. Rep. 47.
It is most earnestly insisted that, even conceding that our jurisdiction is as restricted as just stated, it still includes the present case, because the decision of the state court, although not expressly rested upon the act of 1902, by necessary implication gave effect to it; and in support of this position it is said that, but for that act, the state could not have maintained the suit. But we do not understand that the state's right to maintain the suit was dependent upon that act, nor do we perceive any reason for believing that the act was an influential, though unmentioned, factor in the decision. Under the construction given to the act of 1892 the state still held the title, no conveyance having been made to the board of the levee district, and, of course, the right to maintain the suit was appurtenant to the title. [224 U.S. 632, 640] What has been said sufficiently demonstrates that no effect whatever was given to the act of 1902, and therefore that the case presents no question under the contract clause of the Constitution; and, as there is no suggestion of the presence of any other Federal question, the writ of error is dismissed.