72 US 563 United States v. The Commissioner

72 U.S. 563

18 L.Ed. 692

5 Wall. 563


December Term, 1866

THIS was a writ of error to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.

The case in that court arose on a petition by McConnell for a mandamus to command the Commissioner of the General Land Office to cause to be prepared, signed, countersigned, recorded, and issued, a patent to him for the north part of the south half of section No. 10, T. No. 39 W., range 14 E., situate in the city of Chicago. There was a rule to show cause, and a return thereto by the Commissioner of the Land Office.

The right to the patent was founded upon a certificate of purchase by private entry at the register's office in Chicago, on the 15th June, 1836. The relator complained that he had been denied the patent, since the issuing of the certificate down to the present time, some twenty-eight years, though repeated applications had been made by him for the same.

The return set up that one Robert Kenzie entered this same land, under a pre-emption right, as early as the 7th May, 1831, five years before the relator's entry, and, that the letter's certificate of purchase on the 1st June, 1834, was cancelled on the 20th August thereafter, by the commissioner on account of this previous entry.

Several objections were taken to the legality of the entry by Kenzie, such as, that it was made in the wrong district, and, if in the right one, that the entry on this part of the south half of section No. 10 was in violation of law; which objections were answered by allegations that an act of Congress was passed confirmatory of the defective entry; and also, that the parcel entered and contested belonged to the north and not to the south part of the section.

It further appeard that a patent was issued to Kenzie 4th March, 1837, in pursuance of an act of Congress passed 2d July, 1836; but to this it was objected that the rights of the relator had become vested by the previous entry of 1st June, 1836.

The court below refused to grant the mandamus, and the case was now here for review.

Mr. McDougal, for the relator.

Mr. Justice NELSON delivered the opinion of the court.

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Where the merit of the several objections and questions made in this case lie, we do not undertake to determine, nor can they be determined, understandingly, upon this record. Many of the acts of the parties, and of the officers, the registers, and commissioners of the Land Office, may be valid or void, depending upon the facts and circumstances attending them at the time, and which rest in parol, and are the proper subject of proofs. We have referred to them for the purpose of showing that this case is not one to which the remedy by mandamus can be applied. It calls for the exercise of the judicial functions of the officer, and these of no ordinary character. Indeed, however eminent, it is plain no intelligible decision could be made without the aid of facts not within his knowledge, nor attainable by proofs consistent with the proceedings in the case of mandamus. The duty is not merely ministerial, but involves judgment and discretion, which cannot be controlled by this writ. Besides, it appears that Kenzie was in possession when his entry was made in May, 1831, and was there in 1836; and, as the premises are situated in the settled part of the city of Chicago, it is but reasonable to presume that persons are at this time in possession of the same premises under his title who should have an opportunity to defend it. The relator has mistaken his remedy, for it his title under the certificate is valid, and presents a superior equity over the opposing title, as in the case of Lyttle et al. v. The State of Arkansas,1 and Lindsey v. Hawes,2 the appropriate remedy is by bill in equity.


Whether or not a mandamus will lie in any case to compel the issuing of a patent is a question not necessarily involved in this case; we have not therefore examined it, and express no opinion upon it. We have found no case in which this power has been exercised.


Patents are to be signed by the President in person, or in his name by a secretary, under his direction,3 and countersigned by the recorder of the General Land Office.4

Judgment of the court below




Mr. Justice MILLER did not sit in the case.


9 Howard, 315.


2 Black, 554.

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4 Stat. at Large, 663.


5 Id. 417.