CES Wood VII
Bill Long 2/20/12
The Cases in Court
Promptly as directed by the statute, in the late summer of 1889 the US Attorney General brought suit against the three major Oregon roads (Dalles Military Road, Central Oregon Military Road Co. and Wood's client, the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Road Company--"WV"), seeking forfeit of the lands, totalling more than 2,000,000 acres, from the companies and their current owners. This action was taken nearly 25 years after grants were originally issued by the federal government. Though the cases each had their own history at the US District Court level, they were consolidated at the US Supreme Court. In this and the next essay I will do three things: (1) lay out the procedural history of two of the three cases; (2) mention what it means that the case must be a "suit in equity," and (3) describe the case Wood made before Judge Deady at the US District Court of Oregon early in 1890.
I. Procedural Clarity
If one reads the secondary literature on Wood, even the detailed biography by Robert Hamburger (Two Rooms-1998), one gets the impression that there was just one federal case that dealt with the WV, and that case was decided December 16, 1892 by Judge WB Gilbert (Hamburger, p. 98). In fact, each of the three roads had several federal cases, with the Oregon Central having five federal decisions and the WV having three, but their procedural history was different. Let me illustrate this by comparing the federal cases of the Oregon Central and the WV.
A. The Oregon Central (the road out of Eugene OR) was sued by the US Government in late summer 1889, and the case was dismissed on Feb. 18, 1890. The WV case was also argued in the US District Court of Oregon but wasn't dismissed until May 12, 1890.
B. These cases were consolidated with the Dalles Military Road case (also dismissed in 1890), and the three were appealed to the US Supreme Court. Decision was reached (1st line of the caption is only "Dalles Military Road Co." 140 US 599) on May 25, 1891. The cases were reversed and remanded to the District Courts. I will go into the reasoning a bit more below, but it was, principally, on a "technicality." The district court judges had made their decision based on what is called the "sufficiency of the pleas" (i.e., there was no testimony taken or chance for the government to respond to the defendant road companies pleas). The US Supreme Court decided that the government should be able to put in a full case, and the US District Court judges were so told.
C. Our cases here diverge. They all went back, separately, to the US District Court of Oregon, but the strategies of the lawyers for the various roads differed. For example, the Oregon Central lawyers decided that they would only make one plea rather than two (more about that in a following essay), which made the evidentiary hearing much more brief than in the WV case. Thus, the Oregon Central case was decided with dispatch back in the US District Court, with the case being dismissed on Dec. 7, 1891.
However, the WV case consisted of full argument of two pleas of defendants (no fraud in issuance of certificates by the Governor of Oregon and purchasers were bona-fide purchasers for valuable consideration), and it took much longer to make the case. Thus, it wasn't decided until December 16, 1892--this is the case referred to in Hamburger's book. And, because it happened this late, Judge Deady, who decided the case in 1890, had retired and would die four months after Judge Gilbert's decision. For the WV case, the decision of Judge Gilbert was final--that is, no appeal was taken again to either the 9th Circuit or the US Supreme Court. Why? I think the chronology below makes this clear.
D. The Oregon Central case, having been dismissed by the US District Court of Oregon on December 7, 1891, was appealed to the 9th Circuit, and the 9th Circuit affirmed on March 10, 1892.
E. Then this case (along with the Dalles case) was appealed again to the US Supreme Court, which took the case and made a final decision in both the Oregon Central and Dalles cases on March 6, 1893. Because the WV case on remand wasn't decided at the District Court level until December 16, 1892, it was too late for it to be consolidated with the other cases or argued at the Supreme Court. Thus, when the decision came down on March 6, 1893, in which the two other road companies were victorious, there was no need to pursue the WV case any further. Its victory was complete.
The Case as a Suit in Equity
We no longer really use the term "suit in equity" in legal practice anymore. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, finalized more than 70 years ago, consolidated law and equity, erasing the fine lines of distinction between them that had existed for hundreds of years. Thus, we rarely use the term today (outside, perhaps of family law). Yet, in the road cases decided in Oregon and the Supreme Court in 1890-93, the requirement was that they be treated as "suits in equity." In fact, when the Supreme Court made its first decision in the case in May 1891, Mr. Justice Blatchford observed that "The act of 1889..provides in so many words that the suit 'shall be tried and adjudicated in like manner and by the same principles and rules of jurisprudence as other suits in equity are tried.'" This meant, primarily, three things.
1. The United States, the plaintiff in the cases, would be treated not as the federal government but as a private party. This is important primarily because of statute of limitations claims (in equity it is known as a "stale claim" or "laches"). Normally the government, as the sovereign, drawing on the timeless principle articulated in Blackstone, faced no limitation in time to bring a suit. But here there would be one--and, indeed, one of the reasons for the WV case dismissal in May 1890 by Judge Deady was because of the staleness of the claim.
2. Equity means that claims are characterized using a specialized vocabulary. We are in the world of laches and estoppel, of stale claims and an attempt to solve claims in summary proceedings, without the recourse to plenary and protracted pleadings.
3. Equity also means that the judgment rendered will be more on the basis of the rule of "fairness" rather than any precise calibration of the meaning of words in a statute. That is, the statute would certainly be of importance to define the field or playground in which the case was happening (in this case, the grant of July 5, 1866), but the rules of decision came from a judge's weighing the cumulative effect of the facts gleaned from the pleadings. We are, therefore, in the general world of "what seems fair," rather than the world of technical analysis of the meaning of statutes.
Now we are ready to consider the cases as they appeared before the US District Court of Oregon in 1890 and 1892 and then the Supreme Court in 1891 and 1893. In many ways there will be less than one might imagine in these cases. I find that the best way to get into a case is, rather than simply reading the case report, to "massage the facts" of the case--in almost every instance you will get to the nub of the issue quickly. The next essay does this.