United States v. Little Lake Misere Land Company, Inc 8212 1459

Decision Date18 June 1973
Docket NumberNo. 71,71
Citation412 U.S. 580,93 S.Ct. 2389,37 L.Ed.2d 187
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. LITTLE LAKE MISERE LAND COMPANY, INC., et al. —1459
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Pursuant to the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the United States acquired land parcels in Louisiana for a wildlife refuge, one by deed in 1937, the other by condemnation in 1939. Mineral rights were reserved to the respondent former owners for a period of 10 years, subject to extension if certain detailed exploration and production conditions were met, after which complete fee title was to vest in the United States. The 10-year period expired without the extension conditions being met. Respondents continued to claim the mineral rights, relying on Louisiana Act 315 of 1940, which, as applied retroactively, provides that mineral rights reserved in land conveyances to the United States shall be 'imprescriptible,' thus, in effect, extending indefinitely the former owners' mineral reservations. The Government brought this suit to quiet title. The District Court entered summary judgment for the respondents, concluding that Leiter Minerals, Inc. v. United States, 5 Cir., 329 F.2d 85, was dispositive of the issues, notwithstanding that that judgment had been vacated by this Court and the case remanded with instructions to dismiss the complaint as moot. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Held: Under settled principles governing the choice of law by federal courts, Louisiana's Act 315 of 1940 does not apply to the mineral reservations agreed to by the parties in 1937 and 1939. Pp. 590 593.

(a) Here, where the land acquisition to which the United States is a party arises from and bears heavily upon a federal regulatory program, the choice of law task is a federal one for federal courts, as defined by Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, 318 U.S. 363, 63 S.Ct. 573, 87 L.Ed. 838. Pp. 590—593.

(b) Absence of a provision dealing with choice of law in the Migratory Bird Conservation Act does not limit the reach of federal law, as interstitial federal lawmaking is a basic responsibility of the federal courts. P. 593.

(c) Even assuming that the established body of state property law should generally govern federal land acquisitions, Act 315 as retroactively applied, may not, because in determining the appropriateness of 'borrowing' state law, specific aberrant or hostile state rules do not provide appropriate standards for federal law. Under Act 315 land acquisitions explicitly authorized by federal statute are made subject to a rule of retroactive imprescriptibility, a rule plainly hostile to the United States, and one that deprives the United States of bargained-for contractual interests. Pp. 594—593.

(d) To permit state legislation to abrogate the explicit terms of a prior federal land acquisition would seriously impair federal statutory programs and the certainty and finality that are indispensable to land transactions. Pp. 597—599.

(e) Act 315, as applied retroactively, serves no legitimate and important state interests the fulfillment of which Congress might have contemplated through application of 'borrowed' state law. Pp. 599—602.

(f) In 1937 and 1939, the Government could not anticipate that the mineral reservations in issue might be characterized, under present Louisiana law, as indefinite in duration and freely revocable. A late-crystallizing state law doctrine may not modify the clear and explicit contractual expectations of the United States. Pp. 602—603.

(g) As it is clear that Act 315 does not apply here, it is not necessary to choose between 'borrowing' some residual state rule of interpretation or formulating an independent federal 'common law' rule; neither rule is the law of Louisiana, yet either rule resolves this dispute in the Government's favor. Pp. 603—604.

453 F.2d 360, reversed and remanded.

William Bradford Reynolds, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Austin W. Lewis, New Orleans, La., for respondents.

Mr. Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted the writ in this case to consider whether state law may retroactively abrogate the terms of written agreements made by the United States when it acquires land for public purposes explicitly authorized by Congress.

The United States initiated this litigation in 1969 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, seeking to quiet title to two adjacent parcels of land in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, which the Government had acquired pursuant to the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, 45 Stat. 1222, 16 U.S.C. § 715 et seq., as part of the Lacassine Wildlife Refuge.1 Title to one parcel was acquired by the United States by purchase on July 23, 1937; to the other parcel by a judgment of condemnation entered August 30, 1939. Both the 1937 act of sale and the 1939 judgment of condemnation reserved to the respondent Little Lake Misere oil, gas, sulphur, and other minerals for a period of 10 years from the date of vesting of title in the United States. 2 The reser- vation was to continue in effect 'as long (after the initial ten-year period) as oil, gas, sulphur or other mineral is produced . . . or so long thereafter as (respondents) shall conduct drilling or reworking operations thereon with no cessation of more than sixty (60) days consecutively until production results; and, if production results, so long as such mineral is produced.' The deed and the judgment of condemnation further recited that at the end of 10 years or at the end of any period after 10 years during which the above conditions had not been met, 'the right to mine, produce and market said oil, gas, sulphur or other mineral shall terminate . . . and the complete fee title to said lands shall thereby become vested in the United States.'

The parties stipulated, and the District Court found, that as to both the parcels in issue here, no drilling, reworking, or other operations were conducted and no minerals were obtained for a period of more than 10 years following the act of sale and judgment of condemnation, respectively. Thus, under the terms of these instruments, fee title in the United States ripened as of 1947 and 1949, respectively—10 years from the dates of crea- tion. In 1955, the United States issued oil and gas leases applicable to the lands in question.

Respondents, however, continued to claim the mineral rights and accordingly entered various transactions purporting to dispose of those rights. Respondents relied upon Louisiana Act 315 of 1940, La.Rev.Stat. § 9:5806, subd. A (Supp. 1973), which provides:

'When land is acquired by conventional deed or contract, condemnation or expropriation proceedings by the United States of America, or any of its subdivisions or agencies from any person, firm or corporation, and by the act of acquisition, order or judgment, oil, gas or other minerals or royalties are reserved, or the land so acquired is by the act of acquisition conveyed subject to a prior sale or reservation of oil, gas, or other minerals or royalties, still in force and effect, the rights so reserved or previously sold shall be imprescriptible.'

Respondents contended that the 1940 enactment rendered inoperative the conditions set forth in 1937 and 1939 for the extinguishment of the reservations. The District Court concluded that the Court of Appeals' prior decision in Leiter Minerals, Inc. v. United States, 329 F.2d 85 (CA5 1964), required resolution of this case in favor of respondents, notwithstanding that we had vacated the Court of Appeals' judgment in Leiter Minerals and remanded with instructions to dismiss the complaint as moot. 381 U.S. 413, 85 S.Ct. 1575, 14 L.Ed.2d 692 (1965). The Court of Appeals affirmed, for the reasons stated in its Leiter Minerals holding. It rejected the Government's Contract Clause and Supremacy Clause objections on the authority of United States v. Nebo Oil Co., 190 F.2d 1003 (CA5 1951), and further rejected the Government's argument that Act 315 was unconstitutionally discriminatory against the United States. The Court of Appeals observed 'that the same principle applies to acquisitions by the State of Louisiana (La.Rev.Stat. § 9:5806, subd. B), and that the act really does nothing more than place citizens of Louisiana in the same position as citizens of other states whose land has been purchased or condemned by the United States.' 453 F.2d 360, 362 (1971). We reverse.


Litigation involving Act 315 began more than a quarter century ago. The Leiter Minerals case, upon which the Court of Appeals based its decision in this case, is only the principal holding in the area. The first case to arise involving Act 315, Whitney Nat. Bank v. Little Creek Oil Co., grew out of a 1932 sale of mineral rights that specified a 10-year period of prescription. The surface property was conveyed to the United States in 1936, subject to the 1932 mineral sale, and in 1947 the question arose whether Act 315 of 1940 had the effect of extending indefinitely the servitude created by the 1932 sale. The Louisiana Supreme Court held that Act 315 of 1940 was fully applicable to the 1936 transaction—'not because there is anything in the terms of the statute to indicate that it was intended to have a retroactive application, but because of the general rule of law established by the jurisprudence of this court that laws of prescription and those limiting the time within which actions may be brought are retrospective in their operation.' 212 La. 949, 958, 33 So.2d 693, 696 (1947).3 The court acknowledged the contention that if Act 315 were applied retroactively, it might be unconstitutional, but dismissed the constitutional issue without resolving it for failure to join the United States, a necessary party.

Whitney Bank set the stage for the first federal court test of Act 315, as construed to have retroactive application, in United States v. Nebo Oil Co., supra, aff'g, 90 F.Supp. 73 (WD La.1950). There the United...

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