CES Wood X
Bill Long 2/21/12
The 1893 Supreme Court Decision; Remaining Questions
After Judge Gilbert's resounding Dec. 1892 decision in favor of the WV, Wood's client, the US Supreme Court decision(s) of March 1893 were almost anticlimactic.*
[*The Court actually issued two decisions, but one of them, regarding the Dalles Road, was only a paragraph in length because it followed in all particulars the reasoning of the major case--US v. California and Oregon Land Company, 148 US 31-49. Note we have a renaming of the other Oregon road, because of intervening purchasers. Just two years earlier, in the 1891 case, it was called the "Oregon Central Military Road Company.")
The 1893 case, authored by Justice Brewer, spent most of its time on obscure minutia, such as the correct form of a plea or the legal effect of quitclaim deeds, but the central point in that case bears mention. The Court held that the owners of the road were bona fide purchasers in law.
"The Land Company, therefore, had a right to set up a special plea, and the plea which it did set up, that of a bona fide purchaser, was sufficient if true. And this brings us to an inquiry as to whether this plea was sustained by the testimony..," 148 US 41.
After going through the price paid for the road ($200,000 in this case), and the improvements made, he said:
"The survivors were all called as witnesses, and each for himself testified, as strongly as language can express it, that his purchase was made in good faith; that he had no knowledge of any defect in the title, or of anything wrong in the actions of the Military Road Company, or of any failure on its part to fully construct the road. There was no opposing testimony; and if the question be one simply of fact, there can be no doubt that these parties were bona fide purchasers....," Id. at 42.
Lest we miss it, he says once more:
"The essential elements which constitute a bona fide purchase are, therefore, three: a valuable consideration, the absence of notice, and presence of good faith. Indeed, counsel for the government does not seriously dispute that this is the necessary conclusion from the testimony...," Id.
Thus, whereas Judge Gilbert rested his conclusions based on the four points argued by Wood at the district court on remand, Justice Brewer only stated the one point--the fact that the road owners were bona fide purchasers. It was a full win for the road companies.
We know that Wood was paid $50,000 for the representation of the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Road Company ("WV") in the several years of litigation. In fact, I am not sure whether the $50,000 was simply for that representation or whether it included all the work done for the WV in overseeing the road improvement and making the case, beginning in 1887. We also are on good grounds for believing that when the WV sold to a conglomerate controlled by James Hill in May 1910, its 860,000 acres being about 70% farmland and 30% timberland, Wood picked up a commission fee of nearly $1,000,000--to be paid out in several installments beginning in 1914. I don't know the particulars of the payouts, however, and that would be interesting to learn. But, beyond this issue of payment for legal services, the following questions or observations continue in my mind as a result of studying this matter closely.
I. I have an overwhelming sense of delight at the opportunity to look closely at an issue that defined much of the 19th century in America--land distribution, and see the players involved, the methods of operation, the way that the various branches of government related to each other, etc. This study has stimulated my interest in studying other land issues in Oregon's history--the Donation Land Claims, the fraudulent transfers to timber companies in the late 19th/early 20th century, the complex but interesting case of the O & C railroad, the nature of homesteading in Oregon after 1862. As with most issues in life, when you look at them closely, you can't just say, "it was all fraud," or "it was all enterprise." Complex issues of American values, laissez-faire philosophy, government oversight, personal ambition, and legal acquiescence overlay each other and encourage further investigation.
II. More specifically, however, I would like to know the following:
1. I would like to know the "tone" of Congress before and after the Civil War that led to the "land fever" fostered by the federal government.
2. I would like to know about what constituted the certification process by the governor of Oregon before approving the WV's road. I read that the report of the inspector was 'lost,' but I wonder what constituted a sufficient report--whether the whole process was taken seriously or was rather cavalier.
3. I would like to know the extent of Morris Fechheimer's representation of the road company and Lazard Freres. When did it begin, what did it entail, what was he paid, was there a problem "handing it off" to Wood, etc? I don't know for sure whether he died in March 1885 or March 1886; I would like to know this...
4. I would like to know the nature of the lobbying engaged in by LF and others after the 1880 Prosser report. To what extent did their or other lobbying convince both houses of Congress not to take any action in 1881 and 1882?
5. I would like to know the scope of Wood's representation before the case turned into a lawsuit. Did he encourage the road improvements or did Fechheimer? Was Wood really the "genius" lawyer for LF or had, in fact, the case been "handed to him" with clarity in 1887 when he began his representation?
6. When actually did the improvements to the road take place and what precisely did they entail?
7. What was done between 1882 and 1887 for LF by its legal team?
8. The biggest question has to do with what Wood did from 1893 to 1910 to earn the $1,000,000 fee that was able to give him and his family financial security for the rest of their lives? What documents do we have spelling out the nature of the legal services contract between LF and Wood? Did he work on consolidating some of the "checkerboard" nature of the original holdings so that a more attractive "package" could be sold in 1910? Two slight hints given by Amundson are that there were 282 contracts for sale of company acreage after the legal cases. Surely Wood had to be at the center of these. In addition, he mentions that there were more than 1000 leases on company-owned land until the sale of the company to the Hill interests in 1910. Surely Wood had to made sure that all these leases were drawn up and operating properly.
9. What percentage of his Wood's legal practice was the LF case? We know that he had other clients, but I don't really know to what extent his admiralty practice and other issues continued to occupy his legal mind.
All in all I am convinced that the focused study of a "big case" can not only open worlds of that case, but also can invite consideration of the many other worlds that the case touches. It opens an endless vista of study, enjoyment and insight--and is a method that really is presented in no textbook and few, if any, studies. Yet, I am convinced, it opens meaning in ways that few other studies do. I hope you agree.