Ninety-seven years after the Court of Private Land Claims (CPLC) completed its work to settle Spanish and Mexican land grants, the issue is in the news again. Last May, U.S. Representative Tom Udall introduced a bill (HR 1823) called the "Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty Land Claims Act of 2001." If passed the Act would:
1. Create a seven-person presidential commission to review the claims of the land grant heirs;
2. Examine land claims made by three or more eligible descendants of the same community land grant;
3. Create a community land grant study center at the Oate Center in Alcalde, New Mexico.
"In signing the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, [on February 4, 1848] our government made a promise to protect the rights of landowners who were to going to become American citizens," Udall said. "I think it is clear that in numerous circumstances, those promises were broken."
Udall has a point. One has only to take a look at the disposition of claims brought before the Court of Private Land Claims to conclude that the Court had a strong inclination to reject all but the most ironclad proof of ownership.
In the years that followed the Mexican War, land claims were examined by the surveyor general and submitted to Congress, where confirmation was a political rather than a legal issue. In this manner Congress confirmed 46 New Mexico claims, which totaled 8.637 million acres.
"Once speculators had been taken care of, wrote Victor Westphall in Mercedes Reales: Hispanic Land Grants of the Upper Rio Grande Region [University of New Mexico Press, 1983], "Congress exhibited a startling lack of concern for other grants submitted for confirmation. This parsimonious attitude was perpetuated by the Court of Private Land Claims and supported by the United States Supreme Court."
As early as 1855, Surveyor General William Pelham recommended legislation on the subject of private land grants. No action was taken, however, until March 3, 1891, the last night of the last session of the Congress which expired at midnight, when the act creating the Court of Private Land Claims was passed. The Court was formally organized at Denver, Colorado, on July 1, 1891, and it ended its work 13 years later on June 30, 1904.
The Court had jurisdiction in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. In New Mexico alone the Court considered 282 claims for a total of 34.653 million acres. It rejected 32.718 million acres, a rejection rate of 94 percent. Even if one eliminates the brazenly fraudulent 12 million acre Peralta claim, most of it located in Arizona, the rejection rate was still 91 percent. Only 21 of the 282 cases examined were approved as claimed, with another 61 cases approved in part.
For the claimant, the entire process was extremely costly. In order to initiate a case, the Court required that a petition had to be filed which set forth in detail the facts relating to the alleged grant, along with the original grant documents and two copies, including an English translation. The Court also required an abstract of title showing that the claimant was a lawful successor in interest of the original grantee. Claims, which were not "complete and perfect" were deemed to have been abandoned if not filed within two years from the date of the 1891 Act. No claim was allowed for land that had already been disposed of by the government, however, an indemnity of not-to-exceed $1.25 per acre was allowed for any such land. A strict compliance with every condition or requirement of the grant within the time and in the manner stated was insisted upon, naturally based on American interpretation of these conditions.
In the opinion of this writer, it is in this last sentence that the key lies as to the high rejection rate of claims. Safeguarding the interest of the United States was deemed more important than justice for the claimant. One historian went so far as to say: "It is highly doubtful that any of the [CPLC] justices clearly understood either Spanish or Mexican law relating to grants and titles."
In addition to the conditions listed above, after confirmation was obtained, a survey had to be made for which the claimant was to pay one-half of the cost, a direct violation of Article 8 of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. That expense was to be a lien on the land, which could be enforced after six months. Only after payment had been made was a patent issued, a patent that was to act solely as a release by the United States and had no force against other private claimants for any portion of the land.
Finally, a rejected claim could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Fifty-eight New Mexico cases were submitted. Unfortunately for the claimants, the Supreme Court agreed with CPLC that, "if an act of Congress chanced to conflict with a treaty with Mexico, the enactments of their own government must prevail." [Westphall]
Congressman Udall believes that his bill: " can help bring justice to a sad chapter in the nation’s history." Perhaps it can. The Achilles heel of any attempt to right past wrongs has to be the effect of the passage of time. The people that have been wronged are in their graves, and their numerous heirs will probably sue each other over whatever benefits they may derive from the bill. If that happens, the true winners will be the lawyers.