[267 U.S. 511, 512] Messrs. Francis W. Clements and Alex Britton, both of Washington, D. C., for appellant.
[267 U.S. 511, 513] Mr. Harry L. Underwood, of Washington, D. C., for appellee.
Mr. Chief Justice TAFT delivered the opinion of the Court.
The bill in this case was filed by the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad Company, incorporated under an act of Congress, against the Secretary of the Interior, to enjoin him from canceling a certain selection of lieu lands, and to command him to recall the order for such cancellation, and to refrain from any further action except to issue a patent therefor in accordance with the rights of the plaintiff. [267 U.S. 511, 514] By Act of Congress of July 27, 1866, 14 Stat. 292, Congress made a grant of lands in New Mexico and Arizona to the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad Company in aid of the construction of a railroad of that name. The company defaulted on its bonds, the mortgage was foreclosed, and a sale effected to the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad Company, the complainant, which became possessed of all the rights granted by the Act of July 27, 1866, to the mortgagor company. The grant of 1866 covered every alternate section of public land, not mineral, designated by odd numbers, to the amount of 20 alternate sections per mile, on each side of the railroad line, not reserved, sold, granted, or otherwise appropriated, at the time that the line of the road was designated by the filing of a plat in the General Land Office. The granting act provided further that the word 'mineral,' when it occurred in the act, should not be held to include iron or coal.
The Act of June 22, 1874, c. 400, 18 Stat. 194 (Comp. St. 4889), provided:
Pursuant to this legislation, the railroad company, on December 1, 1921, filed in the proper local land office an application to select the subject of the controversy here, being a 40-acre tract, the quarter of a quarter section within the primary or place limits of the grant in Arizona, in lieu of a tract of the same area in the same limits which it had relinquished because of a homestead claim coming within the terms of the act of 1874. The filing was accepted by the local land office, but was rejected by the Secretary of the interior, because the land applied for was embraced in a coal withdrawal. The view of the Secretary was that the Act of June 22, 1874, did not authorize the selection of coal land in lieu of the land relinquished. The argument of the railroad company is that, as the granting act of 1866 declared that 'mineral' in that act should not include coal or iron, the same construction should be given to the same word in the Act of June 22, 1874, in so far as selections made by the appellant are concerned.
The Supreme Court of the District sustained a motion to dismiss the bill for want of equity, and this action was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
The question whether this court has jurisdiction of the appeal is raised on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior. We think it has under the 6th paragraph of section 250 of the Judicial Code (Comp. St. 1227), which permits an appeal from the Court of Appeals of the District in cases 'in which the construction of any law of the United States is drawn in question by the defendant.' Certainly the Secretary of the Interior, as the defendant herein, by his contention that the act of 1874 does not permit the railroad company to select lieu lands which are coal lands, draws in question the construction of a law of the United States. [267 U.S. 511, 516] The act of 1874 was passed to help homestead and other settlers who were in hard case because they had established their settlement after the grant to the railroad company was held to have attached. The question when it did attach was for a long time doubtful and the subject of litigation. This act of 1874 was intended to induce the railroad companies to relinquish such lands thus illegally occupied as against them by promising in lieu thereof other lands of equal area in both odd and even sections within the prescribed limits. The act applied not only to railroad grants in which the term 'lands not mineral' did not exclude iron or coal lands as in this case, but also to similar grants of which there were several in which the phrase 'not mineral' was used in its usual sense and excluded iron and coal; e. g., see Grants to Union Pacific R. R. and Central Pacific, 12 Stat. 489, 492, c. 120, 3; Joint Resolution Jan. 30, 1865, 13 Stat. 567. It would seem to be impossible, therefore, to give a meaning to the phrase 'not mineral' in the act of 1874 which should mean including coal in some cases and excluding coal in others.
More than this, the settlers who were to be aided by the act of 1874 were those who made homestead or pre-emption filings. Coal lands were not subject to such entry or disposition. As the lands which the railroad companies were invited to relinquish could not be known coal lands, it is not to be inferred that Congress intended that the railroad companies should in compensation acquire coal lands by their lieu selections.
This construction of the act of 1874 accords with the action of the Department of the Interior since its passage. Not until this case had the precise question been mooted, so as to invoke a formal decision of the Secretary; but the record discloses that it has been the uniform practice of the General Land Office, in its printed forms furnished under the act, to confine such lieu selections to lands not [267 U.S. 511, 517] known to contain coal, iron, or other minerals, and that railroad companies generally have acquiesced therein by furnishing proofs of the non-coal and iron character of the land selected.
It has also been insisted on behalf of the Secretary that the discretion vested in him by Congress in supervising the selection of lieu lands and in executing the laws of 1866 and 1874 is quasi judicial, and that it may not be controlled through mandamus or injunction by the courts, unless his conclusion can be said to be capricious or arbitrary, or so unreasonable as not to be debatable. To sustain this claim, the cases of Riverside Oil Co. v. Hitchcock, 190 U.S. 316, 324 , 23 S. Ct. 698, Ness v. Fisher, 223 U.S. 683, 692 , 32 S. Ct. 356, Alaska Smokeless Coal Co. v. Lane, 250 U.S. 549, 555 , 40 S. Ct. 33, and Hall v. Payne, 254 U.S. 343 , 41 S. Ct. 131, and a number of earlier cases are cited. See Brown v. Hitchcock, 173 U.S. 473, 478 , 19 S. Ct. 485. It may be that the authority of these cases would require us to yield to the contention made on behalf of the Secretary in this regard. We are not, however, required to decide this point. The case against the construction of the act of 1874 urged by the railroad company is so clear that we prefer to put our decision directly on the merits of that issue.