472 U.S. 237 (1985), 84-262, Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Co.

Docket Nº:No. 84-262
Citation:472 U.S. 237, 105 S.Ct. 2587, 86 L.Ed.2d 168, 53 U.S.L.W. 4720
Party Name:Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Co.
Case Date:June 10, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 237

472 U.S. 237 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 2587, 86 L.Ed.2d 168, 53 U.S.L.W. 4720

Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Co.

No. 84-262

United States Supreme Court

June 10, 1985

v. Pueblo of Santa Ana

Argued February 20, 1985




The Pueblo Lands Act of 1924 was enacted to adjudicate and settle conflicting titles affecting lands claimed by respondent Pueblo Indian Tribe. Section 17 of the Act provides:

No right, title, or interest in or to the lands of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico to which their title has not been extinguished as hereinbefore determined shall hereafter be acquired or initiated by virtue of the laws of the State of New Mexico, or in any other manner except as may hereafter be provided by Congress, and no sale, grant, lease of any character, or other conveyance of lands, or any title or claim thereto, made by any pueblo as a community, or any Pueblo Indian living in a community of Pueblo Indians, in the State of New Mexico, shall be of any validity in law or in equity unless the same be first approved by the Secretary of the Interior.

In 1928, while an action by the United States, as guardian for respondent, to quiet title to respondent's lands was pending in Federal District Court, the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) approved an agreement between petitioner and respondent granting petitioner an easement for a telephone line on land owned by respondent. As a result, the District Court dismissed petitioner (whose predecessor had allegedly acquired a right-of-way) from the quiet title action on the ground that it had acquired a valid title to the easement. After petitioner removed the telephone line in 1980, respondent brought an action in Federal District Court, claiming trespass damages for the period prior to the removal of the line on the asserted ground that the 1928 conveyance was not authorized by § 17 because Congress had not enacted legislation approving it. The District Court granted partial summary judgment for respondent on the issue of liability, holding that the 1928 conveyance was not authorized by § 17. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that respondent's lands were protected by the Nonintercourse Act, which prohibits any purchase, grant, lease, or other conveyance of lands from any Indian tribe, and [105 S.Ct. 2589] that § 17 did not authorize any conveyance of such lands. The court reasoned that, since the two clauses of § 17 are joined by the conjunctive "and," two things were required to make a conveyance of respondent's lands valid -- first, the lands must be conveyed in a manner provided

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by Congress and, second, the Secretary must approve -- and that, since Congress had provided nothing with respect to the 1928 agreement, the first requirement was not met, and hence the Secretary's approval was meaningless.

Held: The conveyance of the easement was valid under § 17 of the Pueblo Lands Act. Pp. 249-255.

(a) While the word "hereafter" in the first clause of § 17 supports the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the Act, such interpretation renders the requirement of the Secretary's approval a nullity until Congress acts. In light of the canon of statutory construction that a statute should be interpreted so as not to render one part inoperative, the second clause of § 17 cannot be read as limiting Congress' power to legislate in the "hereafter." The Court of Appeals' interpretation of § 17 would also nullify the effect of § 16 of the Act, which authorizes the Secretary, with respondent's consent, to sell any of respondent's lands that are located among lands adjudicated or otherwise determined in favor of non-Indian claimants and apart from the main body of the Indian lands as part of the claim settlement program established by the Act. Moreover, the practical effect of the Court of Appeals' interpretation is to apply the requirement of the Nonintercourse Act to voluntary transfers of respondent's lands. A review of the structure of the Pueblo Lands Act leads to the conclusion that Congress, when it enacted that Act, rather than leaving the matter of voluntary transfers to be decided by the courts or applying the rule of the Nonintercourse Act, adopted a new rule of law in view of the unique history of respondent's lands. Pp. 249-251.

(b) To harmonize § 17's two clauses with the Act's entire structure and with "its contemporary legal context," the first clause should be read as a flat prohibition against reliance on New Mexico law in connection with future transactions involving respondent's lands, and to make voluntary or involuntary alienation of those lands after 1924 occur only if sanctioned by federal law. And the second clause should be interpreted as providing a firm command, as a matter of federal law, that no future conveyance should be valid without the Secretary's approval. This interpretation of § 17 gives both clauses a meaning that is consistent with the remainder of the Act, with respondent's historical situation, and with the legislative history, and is supported by the Secretary's contemporaneous opinion and by the District Judge who gave his stamp of approval to the transaction originally and other similar ones after enactment of the Pueblo Lands Act. Pp. 252-255.

734 F.2d 1402, reversed.

Page 239

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 255. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1928, Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company purchased an easement from the Pueblo of Santa Ana for a telephone line. Mountain States contends that the conveyance of this easement was valid under § 17 of the Pueblo Lands Act of 1924, 43 Stat. 641, because it was "first approved by the Secretary of the Interior."1 The Pueblo contends that § 17 only authorizes such transfers "as may hereafter be provided by Congress," and that Congress never provided legislation authorizing the conveyance of Pueblo lands with the approval of the Secretary. Both constructions find some support in the language of § 17.

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Congress enacted the 1924 legislation

to provide for the final adjudication and settlement of a very complicated [105 S.Ct. 2590] and difficult series of conflicting titles affecting lands claimed by the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico.2

The Committee Reports review the unique and "interesting history of the Pueblo Indians,"3 and explain why special remedial legislation was necessary.

These Indians were found by Coronado and the first Spanish explorers in 1541, many of them residing in villages and occupying the same lands that the Pueblo Indians now occupy.4

From the earliest days, the Spanish conquerors recognized the Pueblos' rights in the lands that they still occupy,5 and their ownership of these lands was confirmed in land grants from the King of Spain. Later, the independent Government of Mexico extended limited civil and political rights to the Pueblo Indians, and confirmed them in the ownership of their lands.

The United States acquired the territory that is now New Mexico in 1848 under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.6 During the period between 1848 and 1910, when New Mexico became a State, inhabitants of that territory -- and members of the bar who advised them -- generally believed that the Pueblo Indians had the same unrestricted power to dispose of their lands as non-Indians whose title had originated in Spanish grants. This view was supported by decisions of the

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Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico,7 and by this Court's square holding in United States v. Joseph, 94 U.S. 614 (1877),8 that the Pueblo Indians were not an "Indian tribe" protected by the Nonintercourse Act.9 As a result, it

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was thought that [105 S.Ct. 2591] the Pueblo Indians could convey good title to their lands notwithstanding the Act's prohibition of any "purchase, grant, lease, or other conveyance of lands . . . from any . . . tribe of Indians." 4 Stat. 730, 25 U.S.C. § 177.

The prevailing opinion concerning the unique status of the Pueblo Indians was drawn into question as a result of the attempt by federal authorities to regulate the liquor trade with the Pueblos. They originally brought charges under an 1897 criminal statute prohibiting the sale of liquor to any "Indian."10 Relying on Joseph, however, the Territorial Supreme Court held, in 1907, that the Pueblos were not "Indians" within the meaning of the statute.11 In response, the New Mexico Enabling Act of 1910 expressly required that the new State's Constitution prohibit

the introduction of liquors into Indian country, which term shall also include all lands now owned or occupied by the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico.12

In United States v. Sandoval, 231 U.S. 28 (1913), the Court noted that whatever doubts there previously were about the applicability of the Indian liquor statute to the Pueblos, "Congress, evidently wishing to make sure of a different result in the future, expressly declared" in the Enabling Act that "it should include them." 231 U.S. at 38.

The narrow question decided in the Sandoval case was that the dependent status of the Pueblo Indians was such that Congress could expressly prohibit the introduction of intoxicating liquors into their lands under its power "To regulate Commerce . . . with the Indian Tribes." U.S.Const., Art. I, § 8, cl. 3. In reaching that decision, however, the Court

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rejected the factual premises that had supported its judgment in Joseph,13 and suggested that

the observations there made respecting the Pueblos were evidently based upon statements in the opinion of the territorial court, then under review, which are at...

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