The forfeiture of rights in public lands restores the land to the public domain and reinvests title in the state[i]. Consequently, forfeiture completely destroys a claim to the land.
A land patent may be challenged only by the state or by the holder of an interest in the patented land, vested prior to issuance of the patent[ii]. A state may prescribe a reasonable period of redemption by those in default of a contract to purchase public lands.
The right of a State to foreclose a contract for the sale of public land for default in payment and the right of the purchaser to redeem after a default decree, relates to the remedy as distinguished from the obligation of the contract, and both of these rights are constitutionally subject to modification by the State[iii].
The validity of a deed or patent from the federal government may not be questioned in a suit brought by a third party against the grantee or patentee[iv]. Further, want of notice of intention to forfeit a land contract would not prevent the forfeiture of the contract actually in default to State land office board, as a vendor, where the controlling statute does not require service of notice of intention to forfeit[v].
The courts have repeatedly held that the Secretary of the Interior is without power to annul a patent once it has issued[vi]. That power is reserved to the courts.
However, as the guardian of the people of the U.S. over the public lands, the Secretary of the Interior has an obligation to see that neither patents nor leases are procured by fraud[vii].
A land patent is impeachable only for fraud or mistake[viii]. Fraud in a patent application provides grounds only for a cancellation proceeding by the Secretary of the Interior. It does not itself void the patent[ix]. However, the U.S. may maintain a suit to set aside a patent based on collusive and fraudulent entries[x].
When a patent for land is procured by fraud, the U.S. has the same remedy in a court of equity to set aside or annul a patent for land, on the ground of fraud in procuring its issue, which an individual would have in regard to his/her own deed procured under similar circumstances[xi].
The U.S. government may either disaffirm a patent for public lands acquired by fraud or it may affirm the transaction and recover damages for fraud, but it cannot do both[xii].
The courts have equitable authority to vacate and annul a land patent that was executed by the mistake or inadvertence of the government or by mistake of law. The U.S. remains the true owner of the land if a patent was issued by mistake[xiii].
When a patent of public lands is obtained by inadvertence and mistake, to the injury of a person who had previously initiated the steps required by law to obtain possession and ownership of such land, the courts, in a proper proceeding, will divest or control the title thereby acquired, either by compelling a conveyance to such person, or by quieting his/her title[xiv].
[i] Singleton v. Terrel, 727 S.W.2d 688 (Tex. App. Texarkana 1987).
[ii] Sledge v. Humble Oil & Refining Co., 340 S.W.2d 517, 520 (Tex. Civ. App. Beaumont 1960).
[iii] Aikins v. Kingsbury, 247 U.S. 484, 487 (U.S. 1918).
[iv] Raypath, Inc. v. Anchorage, 544 F.2d 1019, 1021 (9th Cir. Alaska 1976).
[v] Nash v. State Land Office Board, 333 Mich. 149 (Mich. 1952).
[vi] Pan American Petroleum Corp. v. Pierson, 284 F.2d 649, 655 (10th Cir. Wyo. 1960).
[viii] Martinez v. Mundy, 61 N.M. 87 (N.M. 1956).
[ix] Smith v. Rabb, 95 Ariz. 49, 56 (Ariz. 1963).
[x] State v. Hyde, 88 Ore. 1 (Or. 1918).
[xi] United States v. Minor, 114 U.S. 233 (U.S. 1885).
[xii] United States v. Oregon Lumber Co., 260 U.S. 290 (U.S. 1922).
[xiii] Northern P. R. Co. v. McComas, 250 U.S. 387 (U.S. 1919).
[xiv] Duluth & I. R. R. Co. v. Roy, 173 U.S. 587 (U.S. 1899).