Message to the Senate Returning Without Approval "An Act to Amend the Act of Congress Approved March 3, 1887, Entitled 'An Act to Provide for the Bringing of Suits Against the Government of the United States'"
To the Senate:
I return herewith without my approval the bill (S. 1111) entitled "An act to amend the act of Congress approved March 3, 1887, entitled 'An act to provide for the bringing of suits against the Government of the United States."
If I may judge from the very limited discussion of this measure in Congress, the sweeping effects of it upon the administration of the public lands could hardly have been fully realized. From the beginning of the Government the administration of the public lands and the issuing of patents under the land laws have been an Executive function.
The jurisdiction of the courts as to contesting claims for patents has awaited the action of the General Land Office. Land offices have been established and maintained in all the districts where public lands were found, located with reference to the convenience of the settlers, and the proceedings have been informal and inexpensive. It is true that at times, by an administration of the Land Office unfriendly toward the settlers, unnecessary delays involving much hardship have intervened in the issuing of patents, but such is not the case now. The work of the Land Office within the last three years has been so efficient and so friendly to the bona fide settler that the large accumulation of cases there has been swept away, and the office, as I am informed by the Secretary of the Interior, is now engaged upon current business.
It seems to me that a transfer in whole or in part of this business to the courts, some of whose dockets are already loaded with cases, can not tend to expedition, while it is very manifest that, by reason of the greater formality in the taking and presentation of evidence which would be required in court and of the long distances which settlers would have to traverse in order to attend court, the costs in such cases would be enormously increased.
It is proposed by this bill to give what is called concurrent jurisdiction to the district courts of the United States and to the Court of Claims to hear and determine all claims for land patents under any law or grant of the United States. Whether concurrent with each other or with each other and the Land Office is not clear.
It is quite doubtful under the rulings of the Supreme Court whether the courts now provided by law for the Territories are "district courts of the United States" within the meaning of this bill. The effect of this legislation would, if they were held not to be such, be that as to all suits relating to lands in the Territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Oklahoma no other forum is provided than the Court of Claims at Washington. In this state of the case a settler, or one who has taken a mineral claim in any of these Territories, would be subject to be brought to the city of Washington for the trial of his case.
In view of the fact that all recent legislation of Congress has been in the direction of subdividing judicial districts and of bringing the United States courts nearer to the litigants, I can only attribute to oversight the passage of this bill, which in my opinion would burden the homesteader and preemptor whose claim is contested, whether by another individual or by any corporation, by compelling him to appear at Washington and to conduct with the formality and expense incident to court proceedings the defense of his title. But even in the case of land contests arising in the States where district courts exist the plaintiff, it will be observed, by this act is given the option to sue in those courts or to bring his adversary to Washington to litigate the claim. Why should he have this advantage, one that is not given so far as I know in any other law fixing the forum of litigation between individuals? Not only is this true, but the Court of Claims was established for the trial of cases between individuals and corporations on the one side and the United States on the other, and so far as I now recall wholly for the trial of money claims.
There are no adequate provisions of law, if any at all, for conducting suits between individuals contesting private rights. The court has one bailiff and one messenger, no marshal, and is not provided, I think, either with the machinery or with the appropriation to send its processes to the most distant parts of the country. Yet it is apparent that under this bill the real issue would frequently be between rival claimants, and not between either and the United States. This court, too, is already burdened with business since the reference to it of the Indian depredation claims, the French spoliation claims, etc., and it certainly can not be thought that a more speedy settlement of land claims could be there obtained than is now given.
Again, the bill is so indefinite in its provisions that it can not be told, I think, what function, if any, remains to be discharged by the General Land Office. It was said in answer to an interrogatory when the bill was under consideration that it did not affect claims pending in the Land Office; and yet it seems to me that its effect is to allow any contestant in the Land Office at any stage of the proceedings there to transfer the whole controversy to the courts. He may take his chances of success in the Land Office, and if at any time he becomes apprehensive of an adverse decision he may begin de novo in the courts.
If it was intended to preserve the jurisdiction of the Land Office and to hold cases there until a judgment had been reached, the bill should have so provided, for it is capable of, and indeed seems to me compels, the construction that either party may forsake the Land Office at any stage of a contest. I am quite inclined to believe that if provision were made, as in section 1063 of the Revised Statutes, relating to claims in other departments, for the transfer to a proper court, under proper regulations, of certain contest cases involving questions affecting large classes of claims, it would be a relief to the Land Office and would tend to a more speedy adjustment of land titles in such cases, a result which would be in the interest of all our people.
Nothing is more disadvantageous to a community, its progress and peace, than unsettled land titles. This bill, however, as I have said, is so radical and seems to me to be so indefinite in its provisions that I can not give it my approval.
APP Note: Title devised by Gerhard Peters
Benjamin Harrison, Message to the Senate Returning Without Approval "An Act to Amend the Act of Congress Approved March 3, 1887, Entitled 'An Act to Provide for the Bringing of Suits Against the Government of the United States'" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/206178