State Ex Rel. Gary K. King v. Lyons

CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico
Citation2011 -NMSC- 004,149 N.M. 330,248 P.3d 878
Docket NumberNo. 32,197.,32,197.
PartiesSTATE of New Mexico ex rel. Gary K. KING, Attorney General of the State of New Mexico, Petitioner,v.Patrick H. LYONS, Commissioner of Public Lands, Respondent.
Decision Date24 January 2011


Gary K. King, Attorney General, Seth T. Cohen, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Petitioner.Robert Allen Stranahan, IV, Santa Fe, NM, Peifer, Hanson & Mullins, P.A., Charles R. Peifer, Lauren Keefe, Albuquerque, NM, for Respondent.Montoya Law, Inc., Dennis William Montoya, Albuquerque, NM, for Amicus Curiae League of United Latin American Citizens.Modrall, Sperling, Roehl, Harris & Sisk, P.A., Patrick J. Rogers, Nathan T. Nieman, Albuquerque, NM, for Amici Curiae Easter Seals El Mirador and Union Pacific Railroad Company.Alvin Rey Garcia, Albuquerque, NM, Michael A. Saul Boulder, CO, for Amici Curiae New Mexico Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife Federation.Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, P.A., Edward Ricco, Jocelyn C. Drennan, K. Lee Peifer, Albuquerque, NM, for Amicus Curiae University of New Mexico.Cuddy & McCarthy, LLP, John F. Kennedy, Santa Fe, NM, for Amicus Curiae New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.


BOSSON, Justice.

{1} The Attorney General of New Mexico petitions this Court, for a Writ of Mandamus, requiring the New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands (Land Commissioner) to comply with the New Mexico Enabling Act and the New Mexico Constitution, and thus to cancel or discontinue four separate land exchanges of considerable size and complexity. These exchanges would transfer or have transferred state trust land in the White Peak area of Mora and Colfax counties and elsewhere to private ownership in return for certain private land situated in the same area and elsewhere. According to the Land Commissioner, these exchanges will reduce “checkerboard” ownership of state trust land and consolidate state land into larger, contiguous parcels, thereby improving land management and reducing boundary and access issues that have arisen in that area. See, e.g., State ex rel. King v. UU Bar Ranch Ltd. P'ship, 2009–NMSC–010, ¶¶ 17–18, 63, 145 N.M. 769, 205 P.3d 816.

{2} This Opinion does not pass judgment on either the wisdom or the efficacy of the Land Commissioner's proposed exchanges. Instead, we are asked only to determine whether those exchanges are lawful. Specifically, we inquire whether these exchanges are legally authorized under New Mexico's Enabling Act, a 1910 act of Congress that, among other things, identified public lands for transfer to the state and imposed certain conditions. In our state constitution, the people of New Mexico expressly consented to the provisions of the Enabling Act. See N.M. Const. art. XXI, § 9. We conclude that the exchanges are not authorized because they violate the requirements of the Enabling Act, and therefore we issue our Writ of Mandamus in the manner requested by the Attorney General, directing the Land Commissioner to cancel these exchanges. We also give certain additional directives as indicated in this Opinion.

BACKGROUNDI. New Mexico Enabling Act and History of State Trust Land Exchanges

{3} The 1910 Enabling Act provided for New Mexico's admission as a state into the federal union and set forth certain basic conditions for statehood. Act of June 20, 1910, ch. 310, §§ 1–18, 36 Stat. 557 (Enabling Act); N.M. Const. art. XXI, § 9 (adopting the provisions of the Enabling Act). The Act was adopted during New Mexico's constitutional convention, making it “fundamental law to the same extent as if it had been directly incorporated into the Constitution.” Lake Arthur Drainage Dist. v. Field, 27 N.M. 183, 190, 199 P. 112, 115 (1921).

{4} The Enabling Act required that the people of New Mexico incorporate its mandates into the state constitution, and it specified that those mandates could not be modified without the consent of Congress and a ratifying vote of our citizens. See Enabling Act § 2; see also N.M. Const. art. XXI, §§ 1–11 (incorporating all Enabling Act measures into the New Mexico Constitution and making the Act irrevocable without the consent of the United States and the people of this State); N.M. Const. art. XIX, § 4 (providing for citizen voting on constitutional amendments); Bryant v. Bd. of Loan Comm'rs, 28 N.M. 319, 329, 211 P. 597, 601 (1922) (Congress contemplated that any change ... to the use of the proceeds of the lands granted to the state should be effectuated by amendment to the Constitution, and the Constitution ... provides that the ordinance accepting these grants of land is to be irrevocable without the consent of the United States and the people of the state, and ... any change in the use and application of the proceeds of these land grants may ... be done by way of a constitutional amendment.”).

{5} Section 10 of the Enabling Act governs state trust land management. The Act granted over thirteen million acres of federal land to the State of New Mexico, to be held in trust for the benefit of various public schools and other institutions. See Enabling Act §§ 6–7, 10; 1990 WL 110523 (Cong. Rec.), 136 Cong. Rec. 21,234 (1990) (statement of Sen. Pete Domenici); United States v. Ervien, 246 F. 277, 277 (8th Cir.1917). Our state constitution created the office of Commissioner of Public Lands, vesting it with the “direction, control, care and disposition of all public lands, under the provisions of the acts of congress relating thereto and such regulations as may be provided by law.” N.M. Const. art. XIII, § 2. This Court has long acknowledged that the Land Commissioner's broad authority to manage state trust lands is subject to the terms of the Enabling Act. See, e.g., Burguete v. Del Curto, 49 N.M. 292, 295–96, 163 P.2d 257, 259 (1945) (per curiam) (“It's well settled in New Mexico that under the Enabling Act, our Constitution and the statutes based thereupon, the Commissioner of Public Lands has complete dominion, which is to say complete control, over state lands. This ‘dominion’ is, of course, subject to the restrictions imposed by the Enabling Act, the Constitution, and the statutes, and the manner of its exercise is subject to review by the courts.” (citations omitted)).

{6} Section 10 of the Enabling Act defines the Land Commissioner's power to sell or lease state trust land, but also limits those powers. Sale proceeds are deposited in the Land Grant Permanent Fund and invested by the State Investment Officer for the benefit of enumerated public institutions. See N.M. Const. art. XII, §§ 2, 7; NMSA 1978, §§ 6–8–1 to –22 (1957) (amended 2010); NMSA 1978, § 19–1–17 (1957) (amended 2010); State v. Llewellyn, 23 N.M. 43, 70, 167 P. 414, 423 (1917). Proceeds from leases are distributed directly to the beneficiary institutions. NMSA 1978, §§ 19–1–11, –13 (1989).

{7} Section 10's conditions include the proviso that state trust lands “shall be by the said state held in trust, to be disposed of in whole or in part only in manner as herein provided. (Emphasis added.) When adopted, the only means of disposal provided in the Enabling Act were sale and lease, under certain conditions. The Act provided that land “shall not be sold or leased, in whole or in part, except to the highest and best bidder at a public auction” with detailed advance notice to the public. Section 10 further provides that [a]ll lands ... before being offered shall be appraised at their true value, and no sale or other disposal thereof shall be made for a consideration less than the value so ascertained, nor in any case less than the minimum price hereinafter fixed....” These conditions, crucial to our later discussion in this Opinion, can be summarized as follows: first, disposals of land are limited to the disposals described in the Enabling Act; second, land can only be sold or leased at a public auction to the highest and best bidder; and third, all sales and leases must yield at least the appraised value of the land. As will be discussed more fully in this Opinion, the Enabling Act imposed its conditions and restrictions upon the Land Commissioner's authority to dispose of public lands so as to prevent the kind of corruption and exploitation of the public trust for private advantage that had been widely exposed over the latter part of the 19th Century.

{8} Over time, several attempts have been made to loosen the Enabling Act's constraints on land disposals by amending the Act to provide the Land Commissioner with authority to exchange state land, for land held by others without the constraints of the conditions described above. Only once have both Congress and the people of New Mexico voted to provide the Land Commissioner with exchange authority. In 1926, Congress approved an amendment to allow the Land Commissioner and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to exchange state trust land for national forest land. Act of June 15, 1926, ch. 590, § 1, 44 Stat. 746. New Mexico voters twice rejected the amendment before they approved it in 1932. See N.M. Const. art. XXI, § 11. Voters rejected another proposed amendment in 1935, which would have given the Land Commissioner broader authority to exchange land with the federal government.

{9} Significant to our inquiry today, in 1990 New Mexico voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment of the Enabling Act which would have provided the Land Commissioner with the very authority he seeks to exercise today. The proposed—and defeated—constitutional amendment would have authorized the Land Commissioner to exchange state trust land for land held by private persons or entities, among others. It was defeated by a vote of 57.7 percent against and only 42.3 percent in favor. As will be discussed later in this Opinion, we regard this popular vote as significant. The amendment would not have been necessary had the Enabling Act authorized exchanges all along. To the contrary, its rejection signifies that a...

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