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Opinion of the Court.
The defendants relied upon a deed made by the county clerk of Lafayette County, Arkansas, to W. P. Parks and James M. Montgomery, on the 11th day of August, 1871, upon a sale for taxes for the year 1868, and upon adverse possession under the statute of Arkansas of two years in regard to claims under tax sales, and the general statute of limitation of seven years.
This action was commenced by the plaintiff on the 11th day of April, 1882. The court announced the following conclusions of law:
"1st. That said tax deed to Parks and Montgomery for said land is void, because the land was sold for the taxes of 1868 on a day not authorized by law.
"2d. That under the laws of this State, notwithstanding said tax deed is void upon its face, for the reason stated, it constitutes a claim and color of title sufficient to put in motion the statute of limitations in favor of any person in possession under it.
"3d. That the possession taken by Parks and Montgomery of said land under said tax deed, in the manner set out in the finding of facts, constitutes in law actual, peaceable, open, notorious and adverse possession of the whole of said land; and said possession of said land having been taken by Parks and Montgomery as early as the month of February, 1874, and maintained continuously by them and their grantees down to the trial of this cause, the plaintiff's right of action to recover said land is barred by the two years' statute of limitation contained in section 4475 of Mansfield's Digest, and also by the seven years' statute of limitation contained in section 4471 of the same digest."
Among the requests asked by the plaintiff and refused by the court were the following declarations of law:
“6th. The plaintiff's title to the lands in this case, and that of those under whom he claims, dates from the issuance of the patent of the United States to the Mississippi, Ouachita and Red River Railroad Company, on the 15th day of April, 1875, and the statute did not commence running in behalf of the defendants, or any of them, until such patent was issued.
"8th. That no adverse possession of land can be acquired
Opinion of the Court.
while the title is still in the United States government, and that the patent issued on the 15th day of April, 1875, did not relate back, so as to make the possession of the defendants adverse prior to the date of the patent.
"9th. That neither the plaintiff, nor the railroad company under which he claims, could have maintained a suit of ejectment in the courts of the United States for the possession of the land described in his complaint on an equitable title, nor until the legal title had passed out of the government on the 15th April, 1875, and this action did not accrue to them until the date of the patent.
"10th. That this suit, having been commenced on the 11th day of April, 1882, within seven years from the date of the patent, the plaintiff's cause of action was not barred by the statute of limitations.
"11th. That the deed of V. V. Smith, clerk, not being a sheriff's deed or an auditor's deed, or a deed commonly called a donation deed, is not within the terms of the two years' statute pleaded by defendants, (§ 4117, Gantt's Digest,) and this action is not barred by that statute."
These rulings upon the law of the case by the court present two distinct propositions, on which error is assigned here. One of these is that which holds the seven-year statute of limitations, which is the general period of limitation, prescribed for the benefit of adverse possession, to be a good defence in this case. The other is the same holding in regard to the two years' limitation law.
It is apparent from the finding of the facts that the action, which was commenced on the 11th day of April, 1882, was within the seven years allowed by the statute from the time that the cause of action accrued, if that is to be computed from the 15th day of April, 1875, the date of the patent introduced by plaintiff. That such is the law in regard to the action of ejectment in the courts of the United States has been repeatedly decided. The foundation of this rule is the proposition that time does not run against the government, that no statute of limitation affects the rights of the government, unless there is an express provision to that effect in the statute, and even
Opinion of the Court.
then it cannot be conceded that state legislation can in this manner imperil the rights of the United States or overcome the general principle that it is not amenable to the statute of limitations or the doctrine of laches. The facts found in the present case leave it beyond question that the legal title to the property in controversy was in the United States until the issuing of the patent to the railroad company.
In the courts of the United States, where the distinction between actions at law and suits in equity has always been maintained, the action of ejectment is an action at law, and the plaintiff must recover on the legal title. If it be shown that the plaintiff has not the legal title, that the legal title at the time of the commencement of the action or at its trial is in some other party, the plaintiff cannot recover. The facts in the present case show that this title to the land in controversy was in the United States until the 15th day of April, 1875. Up to that time the statute of limitations could not begin to run in bar of any action dependent on this title. The plaintiff could not sue or recover in the courts of the United States upon the equitable title evinced by his certificate of purchase made by the register of the land office. His title, therefore, being derived from the United States, the right of action at law to oust the defendant did not commence until the making of that patent.
In the case of Lindsey v. Miller's Lessee, 6 Pet. 666, the defendants relied upon a patent issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia, dated March, 1789, under the survey and entry made in January, 1783, and duly recorded in that year. They then proved possession for upwards of thirty years. The plaintiff introduced a patent from the United States, in which was the legal title, dated December 1, 1824, thirty-five years after the patent issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The action was brought in 1832.
This court, in regard to the issue thus made, expressed itself in the following terms (p. 673):
"That the possession of the defendants does not bar the plaintiff's action, is a point too clear to admit of much controversy. It is a well-settled principle that the statute of
Opinion of the Court.
limitations does not run against a State. If a contrary rule were sanctioned, it would only be necessary for intruders upon the public lands to maintain their possessions, until the statute of limitations shall run; and then they would become invested with the title against the government, and all persons claiming under it. In this way the public domain would soon be appropriated by adventurers. Indeed, it would be utterly impracticable, by the use of any power within the reach of the government, to prevent this result. It is only necessary, therefore, to state the case in order to show the wisdom and propriety of the rule that the statute never operates against the government. The title under which the plaintiff in the ejectment claimed emanated from the government in 1824. Until this time there was no title adverse to the claim of the defendants; there can, therefore, be no bar to the plaintiff's action.”
The case of Bagnell v. Broderick, 13 Pet. 436, which has been a leading case in this court for many years, was an action of ejectment in which a patent from the United States to John Robertson, Jr., was relied on by the plaintiff as being the origin of his title. The defendants relied upon certain proceedings in the United States land office in Missouri by which the property was deemed to have been appropriated under the act of Congress concerning New Madrid lands which had been lost by the earthquake, and had been certified to Robertson, and a deed from Robertson to the parties under whom defendants claimed. But this court held that the patent of the United States, issued long afterwards to Robertson, was the strictly legal title on which plaintiff was bound to recover, and in making the decision the following language is used :
"But suppose the plat and certificate of location had been made and returned to the recorder in the name of Morgan Byrne; and that it had been set up as the better title in opposition to the patent adduced on behalf of the plaintiff in ejectment; still, we are of opinion the patent would have been the better legal title. We are bound to presume, for the purposes of this action, that all previous steps had been taken by John Robertson, Jr., to entitle himself to the patent, and that he had the superior right to obtain it, notwithstanding the
Opinion of the Court.
claim set up by Byrne; and having obtained the patent, Robertson had the best title (to wit, the fee) known to a court of law. Congress has the sole power to declare the dignity and effect of titles emanating from the United States; and the whole legislation of the Federal government, in reference to the public lands, declares the patent the superior and conclusive evidence of legal title; until its issuance, the fee is in the government, which, by the patent, passes to the grantee, and he is entitled to recover the possession in ejectment."
Perhaps the case which presents the whole of this question in the strongest light is that of Gibson v. Chouteau, 13 Wall. 92. That was a writ of error from this court to the Supreme Court of Missouri, and that court had held that, under the statutes of that State by which an action of ejectment could be sustained upon an equitable right only, the bar of the statute of limitations began to run when the right of action under such equitable title accrued. The case was several times before the Supreme Court of that State, which finally decided in favor of the defendants on the plea of the statute of limitations, although the patent under which plaintiff claimed to recover had been issued within the ten years which that statute allowed. In delivering its opinion that court used the following language:
"But there is another principle upon which we think the statute may be made to operate here as a bar to the plaintiff's action, and that is the fiction of relation whereby the legal title is to be considered as passing out of the United States through the patent at its date, but as instantly dropping back in time to the date of the location as the first act of inception of the conveyance, to vest the title in the owner of the equity as of that date, and make it pass from him to the patentee named through all the intermediate conveyances, and so that the two rights of entry and the two causes of action are thus by relation merged in one, and the statute may be held to have operated on both at once. The legal title, on making this circuit, necessarily runs around the period of the statute bar, and the action founded on this new right is met by the statute on its way and cut off with that which existed before." 39 Missouri, 588.