LOTFI: Who actually “owns” America’s land? A deeper look at the Bundy Ranch crisis

By Michael Lotfi  Apr 12, 2014

Does the federal government own property

NEVADA, April 12, 2014– Turtles and cows have absolutely no relevance to the situation in Nevada. Does the Constitution make  provision for the federal government to own and control “public land”? This is the only question we need to consider. Currently, the federal government “owns” approximately 30% of the United States territory. The majority of this federally owned land is in the West. For example, the feds control more than 80% of Nevada and more than 55% of Utah. The question has been long debated. At the debate’s soul is Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the Constitution, which is know as the “Property Clause”. Proponents of federal expansion on both sides of the political aisle argue that this clause provides warrant for the federal government to control land throughout the United States.

THE CONGRESS SHALL HAVE POWER TO DISPOSE OF AND MAKE ALL NEEDFUL RULES AND REGULATIONS RESPECTING THE TERRITORY OR OTHER PROPERTY BELONGING TO THE UNITED STATES….

Those who say this clause delegates the feds control over whatever land they arbitrarily decide to lay claim to are grossly misinterpreting even the most basic structure of the Constitution.

It is said the Constitution is “written in plain English”. This is true. However, plain English does not allow one to remove context. Article IV does not grant Congress the power to exercise sovereignty over land. Article IVdeals exclusively with state-to-state relations such as protection from invasion, slavery, full faith and credit, creation of new states and so on.

Historically, the Property Clause delegated federal control over territorial lands up until the point when that land would be formed as a state. This was necessary during the time of the ratification of the Constitution due to the lack of westward development. The clause was drafted to constitutionalize the Northwest Ordinance, which the Articles of Confederation did not have the power to support. This ordinance gave the newly formed Congress the power to create new states instead of allowing the states themselves to expand their own land claims.

The Property Clause and Northwest Ordinance are both limited in power and scope. Once a state is formed and accepted in the union, the federal government no longer has control over land within the state’s borders. From this moment, such land is considered property of the sovereign state. The continental United States is now formed of fifty independent, sovereign states. No “unclaimed” lands are technically in existence. Therefore, the Property Clause no longer applies within the realm of federal control over these states.

The powers of Congress are found only in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. With the exception of the less than two dozen powers delegated to Congress found within Article I, Section 8, Congress may make no laws, cannot form political agencies and cannot take any actions that seek to regulate outside of these enumerated powers.

Article I, Section 8 does lay forth the possibility of federal control over some land. What land? Clause 17 defines these few exceptions.

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