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decided: March 3, 1890.



Author: Field

[ 133 U.S. Page 504]

 MR. JUSTICE FIELD, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

It is familiar law that a State has no power to tax the property of the United States within its limits. This exemption of their property from state taxation -- and by state taxation we mean any taxation by authority of the State, whether it be strictly for state purposes or for mere local and special objects -- is founded upon that principle which inheres in every independent government, that it must be free from any such interference of another government as may tend to destroy its powers or impair their efficiency. If the property of the United States could be subjected to taxation by the State, the object and extent of the taxation would be subject to the State's discretion. It might extend to buildings and other property essential to the discharge of the ordinary business of the national government, and in the enforcement of the tax those buildings might be taken from the possession and use of the United States. The Constitution vests in Congress the power to "dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States." And this implies an exclusion of all other authority over the property which could interfere with this right or obstruct its exercise. Van Brocklin v. State of Tennessee, 117 U.S. 151, 168.

This doctrine of exemption from taxation of the property of the United States, so far as lands are concerned, is in express

[ 133 U.S. Page 505]

     terms affirmed in the constitution of Wisconsin, which ordains that the State "shall never interfere with the primary disposition of the soil within the same by the United States, nor with any regulations Congress may find necessary for securing the title in such soil to bona fide purchasers thereof; and no tax shall be imposed on land the property of the United States." Constitution of 1848, Art. II, sec. 2.

It follows that all the public domain of the United States within the State of Wisconsin was in 1883 exempt from state taxation. Usually the possession of the legal title by the government determines both the fact and the right of ownership. There is, however, an exception to this doctrine with respect to the public domain, which is as well settled as the doctrine itself, and that is, that where Congress has prescribed the conditions upon which protions of that domain may be alienated, and provided that upon the performance of the conditions a patent of the United States shall issue to the donee or purchaser, and all such conditions are complied with, the land alienated being distinctly defined, it only remaining for the government to issue its patent, and until such issue holding the legal title in trust for him, who in the meantime is not excluded from the use of the property -- in other words, when the government has ceased to hold any such right or interest in the property as to justify it in withholding a patent from the donee or purchaser, and it does not exclude him from the use of the property -- then the donee or purchaser will be treated as the beneficial owner of the land, and the same be held subject to taxation as his property. This exception to the general doctrine is founded upon the principle that he who has the right to property, and is not excluded from its enjoyment, shall not be permitted to use the legal title of the government to avoid his just share of state taxation.

Thus, in Carroll v. Safford, 3 How. 441, 461, the complainant had entered certain lands belonging to the United States, in the local land office, paid for them the required price, and received from the office a land certificate. Patents were issued for them, but, before their issue, the lands were assessed for taxation and sold for the taxes. The question whether

[ 133 U.S. Page 506]

     they were subject to taxation by the State after their entry and before the patents were issued was answered in the affirmative. Said the court: "When the land was purchased and paid for, it was no longer the property of the United States, but of the purchaser. He held for it a final certificate, which could no more be cancelled by the United States than a patent;" and again: "It is said the fee is not in the purchaser, but in the United States, until the patent shall be issued. This is so, technically, at law, but not in equity. The land in the hands of the purchaser is real estate, descends to his heirs, and does not go to his executors or administrators." And again: "Lands which have been sold by the United States can in no sense be called the property of the United States. They are no more the property of the United States than lands patented.So far as the rights of the purchaser are considered, they are protected under the patent certificate as fully as under the patent. Suppose the officers of the government had sold a tract of land, received the purchase money, and issued a patent certificate: can it be contended that they could sell it again, and convey a good title? They could no more do this than they could sell land a second time which had been previously patented. When sold, the government, until the patent shall issue, holds the mere legal title for the land in trust for the purchaser; and any second purchaser would take the land charged with the trust."

In Witherspoon v. Duncan, 4 Wall. 210, 218, a similar question arose and was in like manner answered. Said the court: "In no just sense can lands be said to be public lands after they have been entered at the land office and a certificate of entry obtained. If public lands before the entry, after it they are private property. If subject to sale, the government has no power to revoke the entry and withhold the patent. A second sale, if the first was authorized by law, confers no right on the buyer, and is a void act;" and again: "The contract of purchase is complete when the certificate of entry is executed and delivered, and thereafter the land ceases to be a part of the public domain. The government agrees to make proper conveyance as soon as it can, and in the meantime

[ 133 U.S. Page 507]

     holds the naked legal fee in trust for the purchaser, who has the equitable title." See, also, Railway Co. v. Prescott, 16 Wall. 603, 608; ...

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