Federal courts have jurisdiction over federal actions relating to public lands[i]. Federal courts also determine conflicting claims as to title or possessory interests in public lands.[ii].
However, the judgment of a state court upon the question of local or general law, involving no federal question, will not be reviewed by federal courts[iii]. In Devine v. Los Angeles, 202 U.S. 313, 337 (U.S. 1906), the court held that the question as to the title or right in the land and whatever appertained thereto is one of state law and of general public law, on which the decision of the state court is final.
Similarly, a decision by a state court as to the title to lands claimed by both parties under patents from the state, and holding that the lands are embraced in one of the patents, but not in the other, is but the interpretation of the written instruments, and a federal question, and cannot be reviewed by a federal court[iv].
The grant of a land patent to a private party does not guarantee a continuing federal interest or access to federal court since land thus conveyed is generally subject to state law[v]. Similarly, the mere fact that the title of the plaintiff comes from a patent or under an act of Congress does not show that a federal question arises[vi].
The state courts can determine between individuals the priority or validity of conflicting titles under different grants from the same antecedent source, and the issue as to whether one of the two grants was forged or obtained by fraud, does not involve the denial of a right or title set up under a treaty or statute, nor present a federal question[vii].
Where the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court depends upon the denial by a state court of a title, right, privilege, or immunity claimed under the Constitution, or any treaty or statute of the U.S., it must appear on the record that such title, right, privilege, or immunity was specially set up or claimed at the proper time and in the proper way, and that the decision was against the right so set up or claimed[viii].
A state court may determine equities as between a patentee of federal government land and another with whom s/he has dealt, and on a proper evidentiary showing, adjudicate that the patentee holds the legal title in trust for the other person[ix].
State court decisions respecting public lands should be in harmony with federal administrative rulings[x]. Also, the courts are without jurisdiction with pending proceedings within the Secretary of the Interior’s jurisdiction[xi].
When a second patent is issued pursuant to a resurvey covering land covered by a prior patent based on the original government survey, the question as to which patent conveyed the title to the land covered by the later patent must be determined by the judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction[xii].
A judgment in an action involving public lands is conclusive. The decision of the officers of the U.S. Land Department, made within the scope of their authority, is in general conclusive everywhere, except when reconsidered by way of appeal within that department; and that as to the facts on which their decision is based[xiii].
Also, in the absence of fraud or mistake, that decision is conclusive even in courts of justice when the title afterwards comes in question.
However, so long as the Department of the Interior retains jurisdiction of land alleged to be public, administrative orders concerning it are subject to revision[xiv].
A court of equity may, by its decree, vacate and annul a patent for land when the patent was executed by mistake or inadvertence of agents, or upon false suggestions.
In order that a judgment may constitute a bar to another suit, it must be rendered in a proceeding between the same parties or their privies, and the point of controversy must be the same in both cases, and must be determined on its merits[xv].
However, if the first suit was dismissed for defect of pleadings, or parties, or a misconception of the form of proceeding, or the want of jurisdiction, or was disposed of on any ground which did not go to the merits of the action, the judgment rendered will prove no bar to another suit.
Further, no adjudication against the government in a suit by it to set aside a patent estops an individual not a party thereto from thereafter setting up his/her equitable rights in the land for which the patent was issued[xvi].
[i] Greenhorn v. Baker County, 596 F.2d 349, 352 (9th Cir. Or. 1979).
[ii] Duguid v. Best, 291 F.2d 235 (9th Cir. Cal. 1961).
[iii] O’Conor v. Texas, 202 U.S. 501 (U.S. 1906).
[iv] White v. Leovy, 174 U.S. 91 (U.S. 1899).
[v] Greenhorn v. Baker County, 596 F.2d 349, 352 (9th Cir. Or. 1979).
[vi] Joy v. St. Louis, 201 U.S. 332 (U.S. 1906).
[vii] California Powder Works v. Davis, 151 U.S. 389 (U.S. 1894).
[ix] Crowder v. Lyle, 225 Cal. App. 2d 439 (Cal. App. 5th Dist. 1964).
[x] Wilcox v. John, 21 Colo. 367, 370 (Colo. 1895).
[xi] Perry v. Erling, 132 N.W.2d 889, 898 (N.D. 1965).
[xii] Summerville v. Scotts Bluff County, 182 Neb. 311 (Neb. 1967).
[xiii] Craig v. Leitensdorfer, 123 U.S. 189 (U.S. 1887).
[xiv] West v. Standard Oil Co., 278 U.S. 200 (U.S. 1929).
[xv] Hughes v. United States, 71 U.S. 232 (U.S. 1866).
[xvi] Ard v. Brandon, 156 U.S. 537 (U.S. 1895).