RESPONDENT: United States, et al.
LOCATION: Pennsylvania General Assembly
DOCKET NO.: 02-1593
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 541 US 176 (2004)
GRANTED: Sep 30, 2003
ARGUED: Jan 20, 2004
DECIDED: Mar 31, 2004
R. Timothy McCrum - argued the cause for Petitioners
Thomas L. Sansonetti - argued the cause for Respondents
Facts of the case
BedRoc Ltd. and Western Elite, Inc., own property in Nevada patented under the federal Pittman Act (1919). (The act was repealed in 1964.) The act authorized the issuance of patents to desert lands in Nevada to individuals who successfully developed underground water resources. However, the act specified that patents reserve to the United States "all the coal and other valuable minerals" in the patented lands. When the previous owner of BedRoc and Western Elite's land extracted and sold commercially valuable sand and gravel from the lands without a federal mineral contract, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gave notification that the mining was illegal under federal law. The owner lost an appeal to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA). Once BedRoc and Western Elite owned the land, they filed suit in U.S. district court, arguing that the Pittman Act's "valuable minerals" provision did not include valuable sand and gravel. The district court rejected the companies' argument and sided with the United States. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Does the reservation to the United States of all "coal and other valuable minerals" in patents issued under the Pittman Act (1919) include commercially valuable sand and gravel?
Media for BedRoc Limited, LLC v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 20, 2004 in BedRoc Limited, LLC v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 31, 2004 in BedRoc Limited, LLC v. United States
William H. Rehnquist:
I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 02-1593, BedRoc and Western Elite versus the United States.
The Pittman Act of 1919 authorizes the Secretary of the Interior the grant up to 640 acres of land to any settler who discovered a significant source of underground water in the Nevada desert.
And this was not an easy thing to do since Nevada is the driest state in the country.
The Act provided however that all the coal and other valuable minerals found in the land were reserved to the United States.
In 1940, Newton and Mable Butler received a land grant under the Act.
Sand and gravel were abundant on the surface of their property, but because of Nevada’s sparse population, there was no commercial market for them.
By 1993, more than 50 years later, a market had developed and the then owner Earl Williams began to extract and sell the sand and gravel found on the land.
This is because of the growth of the City of Las Vegas which is about 65 miles away.
The Bureau of Land Management ordered Williams to stop, finding that he was trespassing against the United States’ ownership of the land’s valuable minerals, and the Interior Board of Land Appeals affirmed.
The petitioner BedRoc, who acquired the land from Williams, sued the United States in the District Court of Nevada claiming that the land's sand, and gravel were not valuable minerals.
The District Court disagreed and concluded that sand and gravel are valuable minerals under the Pittman Act.
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed relying primarily on our decision in Watt versus Western Nuclear in which we held that gravel is a mineral reserve to the United States under a similar land grant statute.
We granted certiorari and now reverse.
To determine the scope of a mineral reservation, we looked at the ordinary meaning of the words Congress used at the time and within the context they have used them.
Therefore, the ultimate question is whether sand and gravel found in Nevada were ordinarily considered valuable minerals in 1919.
Common sense tells us the answer is no.
Sand and gravel were and are plentiful throughout Nevada, indeed the state is largely composed with the sand and gravel.
And due to its sparse population in 1919, there was no commercial market for such minerals.
The statutory context of the mineral reservation confirms this common sense conclusion.
The following sentences states that all the coal and other valuable mineral deposits are subject to disposal by the United States and under the general mining laws.
Congress obviously believed that any reserved valuable mineral would also be subject to location of the general mining law.
Decisions of the Secretary of the Interior however, demonstrates that in 1919 sand and gravel would not support a mineral location.
Now withstanding the plain, meaning the mineral reservation, the government argues that our decision in Western Nuclear requires us to hold in its favor.
Regardless of whether Western Nuclear was correct in holding that a gravel is a mineral, we will not extend its holding to conclude that sand and gravel are valuable minerals under the Pittman Act.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
I have written an opinion announcing the judgment of the Court in which Justices O’Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy have joined; Justice Thomas has written an opinion concurring in the judgment which Justice Breyer has joined; Justice Stevens has written a dissenting opinion in which Justices Souter and Ginsburg have joined.