Federal Land Retention and the Constitution’s Property Clause: The Original Understanding (Conclusion)
Robert G. Natelson*
Considered from the vantage point of original meaning, both the conservative and liberal interpretations of the “other Property” portion of the Property Clause are partly correct. The liberals are correct in that the Constitution – not just arguably, but clearly – authorizes permanent property ownership outside the Enclave Clause. The clarity of this result flows both from the text of the document and from comments made during ratification. Moreover, the liberals are correct in suggesting that those lands are subject to a public trust and cannot be ceded to the respective states without compensation. Federal land disposal, like federal land management, must serve the interest of the entire country.
On the other hand, the conservatives are correct about another aspect of original meaning. As understood at the time of ratification, the Constitution did not permit the federal government to retain and manage land indefinitely for unenumerated purposes. Massive, permanent federal land ownership would have been seen as subversive of the constitutional scheme. The federal government’s authority to dispose was unlimited (except for trust standards), but its authority to acquire, retain, and manage was not: all the latter functions could be exercised only to serve enumerated powers. To be sure, Congress would have considerable discretion as to how to effectuate enumerated powers, and reasonable exercises of discretion were not to be questioned. At the end of the day, however, all federal land not “necessary and proper” to execute an enumerated power was to be disposed of impartially and for the public good.
I should not be understood as saying that the framers and ratifiers meant to require sale on the open market or to the highest bidder as the only way of disposing land for the public good. That was the method appropriate in 1788, perhaps; but they would have understood that in later times the “proper” methods of disposition would vary according to the needs of the country and the nature of the land.223 In future years, the public interest might justify disposing of (on suitable terms) agricultural lands to homesteaders, mining lands to miners, and environmentally sensitive lands to other public entities or to nonprofit environmental trusts. Generally, though, the Constitution’s original meaning was that lands not dedicated to enumerated functions were to be privatized or otherwise devolved on terns that best served the general interest.
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*Professor of Law, University of Montana; Senior Fellow, the Goldwater Institute; Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence, the Independence Institute; President, Montana Citizens for the Rule of Law. I am grateful the assistance of the following individuals: for review of the manuscript and helpful suggestions, Professor Jonathan H. Adler, Case Western Reserve University School of Law and Elizabeth J. Natelson; for secretarial assistance, Charlotte Wilmerton, University of Montana School of Law.