Lassen v. Arizona Arizona Highway Department

Decision Date10 January 1967
Docket NumberNo. 84,84
PartiesObed M. LASSEN, Commissioner, State Land Department, Petitioner, v. ARIZONA ex rel. ARIZONA HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

John P. Frank, Phoenix, Ariz., for petitioner.

Edwin L. Weisl, Jr., New York City, for United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Rex E. Lee, Phoenix, Ariz., for respondent.

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action was brought as an original proceeding in the Supreme Court of Arizona by the State on the relation of its Highway Department. The Department seeks to prohibit the application by the State Land Commissioner of rules governing the acquisition of rights of way and material sites in federally donated lands held in trust by the State.1 The Commissioner's rules provide in pertinent part that 'Rights of Way and Material Sites may be granted * * * for an indefinite period * * * after full payment of the appraised value * * * has been made to the State Land Department. The appraised value * * * shall be determined in accordance with the principles established in A.R.S. 12—1122.' Rule 12. The Supreme Court of Arizona held that it may be conclusively presumed that highways constructed across trust lands always enhance the value of the remaining trust lands in amounts at least equal to the value of the areas taken. It therefore ordered the Commissioner to grant without actual compensation material sites and rights of way upon trust lands. 99 Ariz. 161, 407 P.2d 747.

The lands at issue here are among some 10,790,000 acres granted by the United States to Arizona in trust for the use and benefit of designated public activities within the State.2 The Federal Government since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 has made such grants to States newly admitted to the Union. 3 Although the terms of these grants differ, at least the most recent commonly make clear that the United States has a continuing interest in the administration of both the lands and the funds which derive from them. The grant involved here thus expressly requires the Attorney General of the United States to maintain whatever proceedings may be necessary to enforce its terms. 4 We brought this case here because of the importance of the issues presented both to the United States and to the States which have received such lands.5 384 U.S. 926, 86 S.Ct. 1446, 16 L.Ed.2d 530.

The issues here stem chiefly from ambiguities in the grant itself. The terms under which the United States provided these lands were included in the New Mexico-Arizona Enabling Act. 36 Stat. 557. The Act describes with particularity the disposition Arizona may make of the lands and of the funds derived from them, but it does not directly refer to the conditions or consequences of the use by the State itself of the trust lands for purposes not designated in the grant. Of the issues which may arise from the Act's silence, we need now reach only two: first, whether Arizona is permitted to obtain trust lands for such uses without first satisfying the Act's restrictions on disposition of the land; and second, what standard of compensation Arizona must employ to recompense the trust for the land it uses. Both issues require consideration of the Act's language and history.


We turn first to the question of the method by which Arizona may obtain trust lands for purposes not included in the grant. The constraints imposed by the Act upon the methods by which trust lands may be transferred are few and simple. Section 28, which is reproduced in the Appendix to this opinion, requires, with exceptions inapplicable here, that lands be sold or leased only to 'the highest and best bidder at a public auction to be held at the county seat of the county wherein the lands * * * shall lie * * *.' The section prescribes the terms, form and frequency of the notice which must be given of the auction. It requires that no lands be sold for a price less than their appraised value. The Act imposes two sanctions upon transactions which fail to satisfy its requirements. First, § 28 provides broadly that trust lands must be 'disposed of in whole or in part only in manner as herein provided * * *.' It adds that 'Disposition of any of said lands * * * in any manner contrary to the provisions of this Act, shall be deemed a breach of trust.' Finally, it provides that 'Every sale, lease, conveyance, or contract of or concerning any of the lands hereby granted or confirmed * * * not made in substantial conformity with the provisions of this Act shall be null and void * * *.'

The parties urge, and the state court assumed, that Arizona need not follow these procedures when it seeks material sites and rights of way upon trust lands.6 The Commissioner's rules thus do not require an auction or other public sale. This view has been taken by other state courts contruing similar grants. Ross v. Trustees of University of Wyoming, 30 Wyo. 433, 222 P. 3; State ex rel. State Highway Commission v. Walker, 61 N.M. 374, 301 P.2d 317. We have concluded, for the reasons which follow, that the restrictions of the Act are inapplicable to acquisitions by the State for its highway program.

The Act's silence obliges us to examine its purposes, as evidenced by its terms and its legislative history, to de- termine whether these restrictions should be imposed here. The grant was plainly expected to produce a fund, accumulated by sale and use of the trust lands, with which the State could support the public institutions designated by the Act. It was not supposed that Arizona would retain all the lands given it for actual use by the beneficiaries; the lands were obviously too extensive and too often inappropriate for the selected purposes. Congress could scarcely have expected, for example, that many of the 8,000,000 acres of its grant 'for the support of the common schools,' all chosen without regard to topography or school needs, would be employed as building sites.7 It intended instead that Arizona would use the general powers of sale and lease given it by the Act to accumulate funds with which it could support its schools.

The central problem which confronted the Act's draftsmen was therefore to devise constraints which would assure that the trust received in full fair compensation for trust lands. The method of transfer and the transferee were material only so far as necessary to assure that the trust sought and obtained appropriate compensation. This is confirmed by the legislative history of the Enabling Act. All the restrictions on the use and disposition of the trust lands, including those on the powers of sale and lease, were first inserted by the Senate Committee on the Territories.8 Senator Beveridge, the committee's chairman, made clear on the floor of the Senate that the committee's determination to require the restrictions sprang from its fear that the trust would be exploited for private advantage. He emphasized that the committee was influenced chiefly by the repeated violations of a similar grant made to New Mexico in 1898.9 The violations had there allegedly consisted of private sales at unreasonably low prices, and the committee evidently hoped to prevent such depredations here by requiring public notice and sale.10 The restrictions were thus intended to guarantee, by preventing particular abuses through the prohibition of specific practices, that the trust received appropriate compensation for trust lands. We see no need to read the Act to impose these restrictions on transfers in which the abuses they were intended to prevent are not likely to occur, and in which the trust may in another and more effective fashion be assured full compensation.

Further, we should not fail to recognize that, were we to require Arizona to follow precisely these procedures, we would sanction an empty formality. There would not often be others to bid for the material sites and rights of way which the State might seek. More important, even if such bidders appeared and proved successful, nothing in the grant would prevent Arizona from thereafter condemning the land which it had failed to purchase; the anticipation of condemnation would leave the auction without any real significance. We cannot see that the trust would materially benefit from this circuity.

We conclude that it is consonant with the Act's essential purposes to exclude from the restrictions in question the transactions at issue here. The trust will be protected, and its purposes entirely satisfied, if the State is required to provide full compensation for the land it uses. We hold, therefore, that Arizona need not offer public notice or conduct a public sale when it seeks trust lands for its highway program. The State may instead employ the procedures established by the Commissioner's rules, or any other procedures reasonably calculated to assure the integrity of the trust and to prevent misapplication of its lands and funds.


The second issue here is the standard of compensation which Arizona must employ to recompense the trust for the land it acquires. The Land Commissioner's rules provide simply that the State must pay the appraised value, as measured by the State's condemnation statute, of the right of way or material site. The Highway Department urges, and the Arizona Supreme Court held, that nothing need ever be actually paid since it may be conclusively presumed that all highways enhance the value of the remaining trust lands in amounts at least equal to the value of the lands which were taken. The United States, as amicus curiae, suggests that the Highway Department be obliged to pay the land's appraised value, but that it be permitted to reduce that sum by the amount of any enhancement shown in the value of the remaining trust lands. The rule urged by the United States differs from that adopted by the state court only in that the United States would not permit the Highway Department to presume enhancement, but...

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