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U.S. Supreme Court

Mountain States Tel. v. Santana Ana, 472 U.S. 237 (1985)

Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Co.

v. Pueblo of Santa Ana

No. 84-262

Argued February 20, 1985

Decided June 10, 1985

472 U.S. 237


The Pueblo Lands Act of 1924 was enacted to adjudicate and settle conflicting titles affecting lands claimed by respondent Pueblo Indian Tribe. Section 17 of the Act provides:

"No right, title, or interest in or to the lands of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico to which their title has not been extinguished as hereinbefore determined shall hereafter be acquired or initiated by virtue of the laws of the State of New Mexico, or in any other manner except as may hereafter be provided by Congress, and no sale, grant, lease of any character, or other conveyance of lands, or any title or claim thereto, made by any pueblo as a community, or any Pueblo Indian living in a community of Pueblo Indians, in the State of New Mexico, shall be of any validity in law or in equity unless the same be first approved by the Secretary of the Interior."

In 1928, while an action by the United States, as guardian for respondent, to quiet title to respondent's lands was pending in Federal District Court, the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) approved an agreement between petitioner and respondent granting petitioner an easement for a telephone line on land owned by respondent. As a result, the District Court dismissed petitioner (whose predecessor had allegedly acquired a right-of-way) from the quiet title action on the ground that it had acquired a valid title to the easement. After petitioner removed the telephone line in 1980, respondent brought an action in Federal District Court, claiming trespass damages for the period prior to the removal of the line on the asserted ground that the 1928 conveyance was not authorized by § 17 because Congress had not enacted legislation approving it. The District Court granted partial summary judgment for respondent on the issue of liability, holding that the 1928 conveyance was not authorized by § 17. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that respondent's lands were protected by the Nonintercourse Act, which prohibits any purchase, grant, lease, or other conveyance of lands from any Indian tribe, and that § 17 did not authorize any conveyance of such lands. The court reasoned that, since the two clauses of § 17 are joined by the conjunctive "and," two things were required to make a conveyance of respondent's lands valid -- first, the lands must be conveyed in a manner provided

Page 472 U. S. 238

by Congress and, second, the Secretary must approve -- and that, since Congress had provided nothing with respect to the 1928 agreement, the first requirement was not met, and hence the Secretary's approval was meaningless.

Held: The conveyance of the easement was valid under § 17 of the Pueblo Lands Act. Pp. 472 U. S. 249-255.

(a) While the word "hereafter" in the first clause of § 17 supports the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the Act, such interpretation renders the requirement of the Secretary's approval a nullity until Congress acts. In light of the canon of statutory construction that a statute should be interpreted so as not to render one part inoperative, the second clause of § 17 cannot be read as limiting Congress' power to legislate in the "hereafter." The Court of Appeals' interpretation of § 17 would also nullify the effect of § 16 of the Act, which authorizes the Secretary, with respondent's consent, to sell any of respondent's lands that are located among lands adjudicated or otherwise determined in favor of non-Indian claimants and apart from the main body of the Indian lands as part of the claim settlement program established by the Act. Moreover, the practical effect of the Court of Appeals' interpretation is to apply the requirement of the Nonintercourse Act to voluntary transfers of respondent's lands. A review of the structure of the Pueblo Lands Act leads to the conclusion that Congress, when it enacted that Act, rather than leaving the matter of voluntary transfers to be decided by the courts or applying the rule of the Nonintercourse Act, adopted a new rule of law in view of the unique history of respondent's lands. Pp. 472 U. S. 249-251.

(b) To harmonize § 17's two clauses with the Act's entire structure and with "its contemporary legal context," the first clause should be read as a flat prohibition against reliance on New Mexico law in connection with future transactions involving respondent's lands, and to make voluntary or involuntary alienation of those lands after 1924 occur only if sanctioned by federal law. And the second clause should be interpreted as providing a firm command, as a matter of federal law, that no future conveyance should be valid without the Secretary's approval. This interpretation of § 17 gives both clauses a meaning that is consistent with the remainder of the Act, with respondent's historical situation, and with the legislative history, and is supported by the Secretary's contemporaneous opinion and by the District Judge who gave his stamp of approval to the transaction originally and other similar ones after enactment of the Pueblo Lands Act. Pp. 472 U. S. 252-255.

734 F.2d 1402, reversed.

Page 472 U. S. 239

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 472 U. S. 255. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

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