CORKRAN OIL & DEVELOPMENT CO v. ARNAUDET(1905)
This was a petitorty action commenced by the Corkran Oil & Development Company in the eighteeth judicial district court for the parish of Acadia, Louisiana, on the 6th day of December, A. D. 1901, against Laurent Arnaudet and others, to recover possession of certain real property. Plaintiff alleged that the land was claimed by Anthony Corkran during his lifetime, and by his heirs and legal representatives after his death, and that said claim, known as the 'Corkran grant,' was finally confirmed to Corkran's heirs and legal [199 U.S. 182, 183] representatives by an act of Congress of February 10, 1897, and a patent was issued to them in accordance with the act. That Corkran died in about the year 1819, and his succession was duly opened in St. Landry parish, where he resided, and where the property was situated, and that petitioner acquired title to said property from Corkran's heirs and descendants by acts of sale on various dates specified, said dates being subsequent to November 10, 1901. That neither Corkran and wife, nor any of his heirs, legal representatives, or descendants, ever sold or disposed of their rights, title, or interests in the land before the sales to petitioner, and petitioner was now the just, true, and legal owner of the property. Notwithstanding which, defendants, without legal right or title, and against petitioner's rights, had entered upon, and now possessed and held, said property, and refused to deliver the same to petitioner as of right.
The act of Congress referred to is as follows (29 Stat. at L. 517, chap. 213): 'Chap. 213. An Act to Quiet Title and Possession with Respect to Certain Unconfirmed and Located Private Land Claims in the State of Louisiana.
The patent is as follows:
[Here follows the act of February 10, 1897, in full.]
[Plat and descriptive note.]
Dated November 22, 1897
The defendants filed exceptions, and also answered, admitting that Anthony Corkran, or Cochran, claimed the land in question, and that it was patented to Corkran and his heirs under and according to the act of February 10, 1897, which was fully set forth in the preamble to the patent; and they asserted that the true intent of said act of Congress fully appeared from the 2d section of the act, and that 'under and by virtue of the laws of Louisiana, all the right, title, and interest of Anthony Corkran and his heirs in and to the land claimed by plaintiff, and patented as aforesaid to Anthony [199 U.S. 182, 186] Corkran and his heirs, had been devested long prior to the issuance of the aforesaid patent, and was held in full and complete ownership long prior to the date of said patent by the authors of defendants and by defendants, under valid and perfect titles, by and under the laws of Louisiana, including the laws of prescription.'
That the authors of defendants and defendants themselves had acquired by true and valid title all the right, title, interest, and estate at law or in equity in the lands patented to Anthony Corkran and his heirs prior to the issue of the patent, by virtue of the laws of Louisiana providing for the sale of all lands situated within its borders for nonpayment of taxes, by mesne conveyances of said lands from the purchaser at a tax sale December 2, 1882, for unpaid taxes assessed on said realty for the year 1881; and that since said tax sale the real estate in question has always been in the possession of the purchaser at that sale and the authors of defendants and the defendants themselves, and been occupied by them as owners in undisturbed and quiet possession. Defendants further pleaded in bar of the action and in support of their title 'the prescription of three, five, and ten years, and that the prescription of three years established by article 233 of the Louisiana Constitution of 1898 is a complete bar to this action.' Defendants also asserted that they had paid taxes on said property during the time of their possession, and had placed thereon valuable improvements, amounting in the aggregate to upwards of $20,000. The trial court decided the case on the merits, and found that defendants claimed title to the land in controversy through Henry Gellert, who purchased the land at a tax sale in 1882, for taxes assessed against said land in the name of Anthony Corkran or his heirs, and set forth the facts on which the court held that the land in controversy was subject to such assessment and sale. The trial court held that the defendants were protected by the prescription of three years, provided in article 233 of the Constitution of 1898, as well as the prescription of three and five years pleaded, [199 U.S. 182, 187] and entered judgment for defendants. On appeal, the judgment was affirmed by the supreme court of Louisiana, the case being reported 111 La. 563, 35 So. 747.
That court found as facts that, under the act of February 10, 1897, a patent issued on November 22, 1897, to Anthony Corkran and his heirs and assigns for the lands in controversy in this suit; that there was not in the record any previous application for the land or entry thereof by Anthony Corkran, but that the records of the Land Department showed that, in 1816, the land was surveyed by Deputy United States Surveyor Aborn, by virtue of 'an order from the principal deputy surveyor of the western district, state of Louisiana, and in conformity with a certificate, B No. 1151, from the board of commissioners of the said western district' for Anthony Corkran; that this map and proces verbal were approved May 21, 1817, by Gideon Fritz, principal deputy surveyor; that the land was again surveyed in 1875 by P. A. Thibodaux, deputy surveyor, and across his map is written 'Claimed by Anthony Corkran-no confirmation found;' that the officers of the United States Land Office refused to dispose of the land under the general land laws of the United States, and finally Congress passed the act of 1897; that on December 27, 1882, the tax collector of the parish of St. Landry executed a deed in favor of Henry Gellert, which was recorded on the same day in the conveyance book of that parish, reciting that on the 2d day of December, 1882, he had adjudicated to said Gellert at public sale the land in controversy, 'being the property of Anthony Corkran or his heirs, as per assessment roll of the state of Louisiana of the year 1881, to satisfy a debt due the said state for the unpaid taxes' for said year; and that 'the present defendants are admittedly in possession of the land patented to Anthony Corkran or his heirs.' And the court held 'that the land in controversy was subject to taxation and sale for nonpayment of taxes,' and that the objection that it was not so subject was untenable.
As to the objection that the tax deed was invalid because [199 U.S. 182, 188] of indefiniteness of description, the court held that the presumption, after the great lapse of time, was that the assessment roll to which the deed referred was sufficiently precise and definite, and was correct and regular, and that defendants were justified in relying on the presumption of regularity, in the absence of actual attack upon the tax proceedings.
The court held further that the argument of plaintiff that Corkran and his heirs were without right of any kind in the land in controversy would leave the government, so far as they were concerned, free to make such disposition of said land as it might think proper; for the result of such argument would be to throw them out of court for want of interest in the subject-matter, their rights resting exclusively upon the government's acts. The court said:
The court pointed out that counsel, notwithstanding the provisions of article 233 of the Constitution of 1898 as to the prescription of three years barring an action seeking to annul a tax title, had brought a direct petitory action against defendants in actual possession of the property which they claimed. The court continued:
Messrs. Kenneth Baillio, E. B. Dubuisson, and Hampden Story for plaintiff in error.
Messrs. D. Caffery, Jr., Gilbert L. Dupre, D. Caffery, J. Sully Martel, P. J. Chappin.
[199 U.S. 182, 191] Frederic D. McKenney, John Spalding Flannery, and James L. Autry for defendants in error.
Statement by Mr. Chief Justice Fuller:
Mr. Chief Justice Fuller, having made the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court:
It the progress of the case in the trial court no Federal [199 U.S. 182, 193] question as such was specifically raised, but when it reached the supreme court it was assigned for error that if article 233 of the Constitution of Louisiana of 1898 had the effect of validating the tax sale to Henry Gellert, it was in violation of article 5 of the amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Counsel for plaintiff in error admit that this was a misreference, but contend that it was corrected by the petition for rehearing filed after judgment, which alleged a violation of the 14th Amendment; but this came too late, unless the petition was entertained and the point passed on. Fullerton v. Texas, 196 U.S. 192 , 49 L. ed. 443, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 221. And this petition was denied without any observations.
The petition for the writ of error from this court and the assignment of errors herein set up Federal questions, but they form no part of the record on which to determine whether a Federal question was decided by the state court. Leeper v. Texas, 139 U.S. 462 , 35 L. ed. 225, 11 Sup. Ct. Rep. 577; Chapin v. Fye, 179 U.S. 127 , 45 L. ed. 119, 21 Sup. Ct. Rep. 71. And counsel further state 'that in so far as the errors assigned are said to have violated the due process of law provision of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, they are not pressed.'
If it be conceded that plaintiff specially set up and claimed title to the land in controversy under the act of Congress of February 10, 1897, that would not be sufficient to give jurisdiction unless the state courts had decided against such title. But that was not the decision here. What was decided was that the prescribed period having elapsed, article 233 of the Louisiana Constitution operated as the equivalent of legal title through the tax deed. The correctness of this conclusion depended on the proper construction and application of the provisions of the state Constitution on the facts found, and not on the Constitution or laws of the United States.
The state Constitution of 1898 was adopted and went into effect May 12, 1898. La. Const. 1898, p. 88. Article 233 provided:
The record showed that defendants and their authors had been, since 1882, in quiet, peaceable possession of the property in question under a tax title, the validity of which had not been impeached by any direct proceeding; that more than three years had elapsed before the institution of the present action since the adoption of the Constitution (and more than that since the passage of the act of February 10, 1897, and the issue of the patent, November 22, 1897), and that at any time within such three years plaintiff or its authors might have instituted suit against defendants to annul the sale.
And the decision of the state supreme court that, in these circumstances, article 233 made good defendants' title, rested on a ground independent of the act of 1897, and involved no Federal question.
Writ of error dismissed.