Lassen v. Arizona ex rel. Arizona Highway Dept.

RESPONDENT: Arizona ex rel. Arizona Highway Dept.
LOCATION: Multnomah County Circuit Court

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1965-1967)

CITATION: 385 US 458 (1967)
ARGUED: Nov 16, 1966
DECIDED: Jan 10, 1967

Facts of the case


Media for Lassen v. Arizona ex rel. Arizona Highway Dept.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 16, 1966 in Lassen v. Arizona ex rel. Arizona Highway Dept.

Earl Warren:

Number 80, number 84, Obed M. Lassen, Commissioner, State Land Department, petitioner versus Arizona in the relation of Arizona Highway Department.

Mr. Frank.

John P. Frank:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This matter comes here on a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court of Arizona and the issue is the validity of a regulation of the State Land Commissioner of Arizona, Mr. Obed Lassen, my client here which requires that certain lands granted in trust to the State of Arizona by the federal government should be paid for if they are to be taken for the uses which I am going to discuss.

The background of the matter is that we are interpreting an Act of Congress passed in the year 1910.

At that time, there was pending the proposal to admit the 47th and 48th states, New Mexico and Arizona and an Enabling Act was about to be passed.

The legislation was to contain as in the typical acts for the admission of new states provisions to provide public lands essentially and primarily for schools.

In this case, it was contemplated that there would be ten and a half million acres of land given to the State of Arizona and a similar amount to the State of New Mexico to be held in trust for this purpose.

But there had been a background in what was then the territory of New Mexico which disturbed the Congress very much.

There had been what were known as the Tall Timber cases in which the practice had a reason of despoiling public lands in New Mexico by the devise of purporting to sell lands, having them stripped off their mineral or timber to assets and then giving them back to the state again and so as against this background in this Act, the Congress wished to be particularly careful and so it was and it provided not only as had been the tradition in other acts that the proceeds of public lands should be held in trust.

The Congress also provided in this joint act for the two states that the very lands themselves should be held in trust and it provided further that those lands could never be disposed of except by the devise of public auction and that they never could they be disposed of except after an appraisal which would determine the true value thereof.

There was a minimum offset price of so and so many dollars in paper but beyond that it was provided that the land should not be sold or leased I quote the statute in a whole or in part except to the highest and best bidder.

And if was further provided in this section and I think is of special importance that all lands, leaseholds, timber and other products should be appraised of their true value and no sale or no other disposal thereof should be made for a consideration less than the value so ascertained.

Under that statute then the lands were given to the two states and the practical experience has been that they have been frugally handled to the great benefit of education in both of these states.

In New Mexico, which has a keen interest here because as Your Honor understands, the identical statute in the same provisions and hence we are joined here by Mr. Jordan, Assistant Attorney General from New Mexico.

In New Mexico something in the amount of 40% of the educational funds of the state have been developed from these lands and some $200 million has been held in trust.

In our own state we have taken a more conservative approach to the use of the lands of the lands and we still have nine and a half million of the ten and a half million acres in the trust and the proceeds of the remainder are held in a permanent school fund and are used for the purposes of developing education in Arizona.

These lands as enormous ten million acre track I must make clear is scattered throughout the state.

We're not talking about a sector or part of a reservation.

It's rather a checker boarding of the whole state to establish the public lands.

Now --

Potter Stewart:

The ones that are still -- the land share which is still on up held by the state, are they rented?

John P. Frank:

No, these are (Voice Overlap).

For the most part except as they may be subject to grazing or very short term leases are simply held that's part of our vast acreage, Your Honor, is perhaps aware that in our state there were 80% of the total land of the state as public land of one sort or another.

This is a relatively small patch of it.

Potter Stewart:

And it does not produce very much income.

John P. Frank:

No, these are non-income producing lands being held for use, a million acres has been disposed of in a fashion which I have described.

Hugo L. Black:

Mr. Frank, does this trust fund differ and essentially from the school lands in other western states?

John P. Frank:

No, Your Honor.

I have said that these lands were put in trust and I have emphasized that because it dramatizes the extraordinary care Congress took in this case but functionally it's all the same.