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Jurisdiction: Land

Article III, section 2, clause 1, of the U.S. Constitution extended the federal judicial power to controversies "between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States." Congress did not initially provide the federal courts with original jurisdiction in this area, but section 12 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the party holding an out-of-state grant the right to remove the case from a state court to a U.S. circuit court when the amount in dispute exceeded $500. The Jurisdiction and Removal Act of 1875 provided the circuit courts with original jurisdiction over such cases while broadening the removal provision to allow either party to invoke it. In 1887, the amount in controversy requirement was eliminated for cases brought originally in federal court and raised to $2,000 for removal. The Judicial Code of 1911, which abolished the circuit courts, transferred jurisdiction over Article III land cases to the district courts and raised the amount in controversy for removal to $3,000. Finally, the Judicial Code of 1948 eliminated the removal provision specific to such cases but permitted removal, without regard to the amount in controversy, of any case over which the district courts had original jurisdiction.

Although the states themselves were not parties to controversies arising from competing land grants as defined by the Constitution, federal jurisdiction over such cases was important to national harmony. John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, noted in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) that "as the rights of the two States to grant the land, are drawn into question, neither of the two States ought to decide the controversy." Justice Joseph Story elaborated on the issue in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833), explaining, "The courts of neither of the granting states could be expected to be unbiassed. The laws may have even prejudged the question; and tied the courts down to decisions in favour of the grants of the state, to which they belonged. And where this has not been done, it would be natural, that the judges, as men, should feel a strong predilection for the claims of their own government."

Federal jurisdiction over Article III land cases was especially significant because such litigation could lead to judicial determinations of state boundaries. The Supreme Court decided cases determining, for example, portions of the boundaries between Ohio and Indiana ( Handly's Lessee v. Anthony (1820)), Illinois and Missouri ( St. Louis v. Rutz (1891)), and Arkansas and Mississippi ( Moore v. McGuire (1907)). In the early years of the republic, the Court also ruled on competing grants in cases where one state was formerly part of the other, such as Town of Pawley v. Clark (1815), which involved land in Vermont formerly located in New Hampshire, and Colson v. Lewis (1817), a dispute over land in Kentucky that was once part of Virginia.

In the twentieth century, litigation involving competing land grants from different states became exceedingly rare. The American Law Institute's 1969 Study of the Division of Jurisdiction between State and Federal Courts advised that the statute providing federal jurisdiction over such cases "may safely be repealed" because "the circumstances that made [such jurisdiction] necessary in 1789 no longer exist, and it is now obsolete. Boundary disputes and conflicting grants there may be, but under modern conditions they will normally be between citizens of different states." Congress did not repeal the statute, however. In 1970 and 1971, the jurisdictional statute was invoked in a pair of cases before the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon involving competing grants from Oregon and Washington to islands situated in the Columbia River, which formed the boundary between those states.