FEDERAL JURISDICTION
FEDERAL JURISDICTION

In the United States, there are two separate and distinct jurisdictions, one being that of the States within their own territorial boundaries and the other being federal jurisdiction. Broadly speaking, state jurisdiction encompasses the legislative power to regulate, control and govern real and personal property, individuals and enterprises within the territorial limits of any given State. In contrast, federal jurisdiction is extremely limited, with the same being exercised only in areas external to state legislative power and territory. Notwithstanding the clarity of this simple principle, the line of demarcation between these two jurisdictions and the extent and reach of each has become somewhat blurred due to popular misconceptions and the efforts expended by the federal government to conceal one of its major weaknesses. Only by resorting to history and case law can this obfuscation be clarified and the two distinct jurisdictions be readily seen.

The original thirteen colonies of America were each separately established by charters from the English Crown. Outside of the common bond of each being a dependency and colony of the mother country, England, the colonies were not otherwise united. Each had its own governor, legislative assembly and courts, and each was governed separately and independently by the English Parliament.

The political connections of the separate colonies to the English Crown and Parliament descended to an rebellious state of affairs as the direct result of Parliamentary acts adopted in the late 1760's and early 1770's. Due to the real and perceived dangers caused by these various acts, the First Continental Congress was convened by representatives of the several colonies in October, 1774, and its purpose was to submit a petition of grievances to the British Parliament and Crown. By the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, dated October 14, 1774, the colonial representatives labeled these Parliamentary acts of which they complained as "impolitic, unjust, and cruel, as well as unconstitutional, and most dangerous and destructive of American rights;" but further, they asserted that these acts manifested designs, schemes and plans "which demonstrate a system formed to enslave America."

Matters grew worse and between October, 1775, and the middle of 1776, each of the colonies separately severed their ties and relations with England, and several adopted constitutions for the newly formed States. By July, 1776, the exercise of British authority in all of the colonies was not recognized in any degree. The capstone of this actual separation of the colonies from England was the more formal Declaration of Independence.

The legal effect of the Declaration of Independence was to make each new State a separate and independent sovereign over which there was no other government of superior power or jurisdiction. This was clearly shown in M'Ilvaine v. Coxe's Lessee, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 209, 212 (1808), where it was held:

The consequences of independence was again explained in Harcourt v. Gaillard, 25 U.S. (12 Wheat.) 523, 526, 527 (1827), where the Supreme Court stated: Thus, unequivocally, in July, 1776, the new States possessed all sovereignty, power, and jurisdiction over all the soil and persons in their respective territorial limits.

This condition of supreme sovereignty of each State over all property and persons within the borders thereof continued notwithstanding the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. Article II of that document declared:

As the history of the confederation government demonstrated, each State was indeed sovereign and independent to such a degree that it made the central government created by the confederation fairly ineffectual. These defects of the confederation government strained the relations between and among the States and the remedy became the calling of a constitutional convention.

The representatives which assembled in Philadelphia in May, 1787, to attend the Constitutional Convention met for the primary purpose of improving the commercial relations among the States, although the product of the Convention was more than this. But, no intention was demonstrated for the States to surrender in any degree the jurisdiction so possessed by them at that time, and indeed the Constitution as finally drafted continued the same territorial jurisdiction of the States as existed under the Articles of Confederation. The essence of this retention of state jurisdiction was embodied in Art. I, 8, cl. 17 of the U.S. Constitution, which defined federal jurisdiction as follows:

The reason for the inclusion of this clause in the Constitution is obvious. Under the Articles of Confederation, the States retained full and complete jurisdiction over lands and persons within their borders. The Congress under the Articles of Confederation was merely a body which represented and acted as agents of the separate States for external affairs, and it had no jurisdiction within the States. This defect in the Articles made the Confederation Congress totally dependent upon any given State for protection, and this dependency did in fact cause embarrassment for that Congress. During the Revolutionary War while the Congress met in Philadelphia, a body of mutineers from the Continental Army surrounded the Congress and chastised and insulted its members. The governments of both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania proved themselves powerless to remedy this situation, so Congress was forced to flee first to Princeton, New Jersey, and finally to Annapolis, Maryland.[1] Thus, this clause was inserted into the Constitution to give jurisdiction to Congress over its capital, and such other places which Congress might purchase for forts, magazines, arsenals and other needful buildings wherein the State ceded jurisdiction of such lands to the federal government. Other than in these areas, this clause of the Constitution did not operate to cede further jurisdiction to the federal government, and jurisdiction over those areas which had not been so ceded remained within the States.

While there had been no real provisions in the Articles which permitted the Confederation Congress to acquire property and possess exclusive jurisdiction over that property, the above clause filled an essential need by permitting the federal government to acquire land for the seat of government and other purposes from certain of the States. These lands were deemed essential to enable the United States to perform the powers delegated by the Constitution, and a cession of lands by any particular State would grant exclusive jurisdiction of them to Congress. Perhaps the best explanations for this clause in the Constitution were set forth in Essay No. 43 of The Federalist:

Since the ratification of the present U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court and all lower courts have had many opportunities to construe and apply this clause of the Constitution. The essence of all these decisions manifests a legal principle that the States of this nation have exclusive jurisdiction of property and persons located within their borders, excluding such lands and persons residing thereon which have been ceded to the United States.

Perhaps one of the earliest decisions on this point was United States v. Bevans, 16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 336 (1818), which involved a federal prosecution for a murder committed on board the Warship, Independence, anchored in the harbor of Boston, Massachusetts. The defense complained that only the state had jurisdiction to prosecute this crime and argued that the federal circuit courts had no jurisdiction of this crime supposedly committed within the federal government's admiralty jurisdiction. In argument before the Supreme Court, counsel for the United States admitted as much:

In holding that the State of Massachusetts had jurisdiction over this crime, the Court held: The Court in Bevans thus established a principle that federal jurisdiction extends only over the areas wherein it possesses the power of exclusive legislation, and this is a principle incorporated into all subsequent decisions regarding the extent of federal jurisdiction. To hold otherwise would destroy the purpose, intent and meaning of the entire U.S. Constitution.

The decision in Bevans was closely followed by decisions made in two state courts and one federal court within the next two years. In Commonwealth v. Young, Brightly, N.P. 302, 309 (Pa. 1818), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was presented with the issue of whether lands owned by the United States for which Pennsylvania had never ceded jurisdiction had to be sold pursuant to state law. In deciding that the law of Pennsylvania exclusively controlled this sale of federal land, the Court held:

A year later, the Supreme Court of New York was presented with the issue of whether the State of New York had jurisdiction over a murder committed at Fort Niagara, a federal fort. In People v. Godfrey, 17 Johns. 225, 233 (N.Y. 1819), that court held that the fort was subject to the jurisdiction of the State since the lands therefore had not been ceded to the United States: The decisional authority upon which this court relied was United States v. Bevans, supra.

At about the same time that the New York Supreme Court rendered its opinion in Godfrey, a similar fact situation was before a federal court, the only difference being that the murder was committed on land which had been ceded to the United States. In United States v. Cornell, 25 Fed.Cas. 646, 648, No. 14,867 (C.C.D.R.I. 1819), the court held that the case fell within federal jurisdiction:

Almost 18 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court was again presented with a case involving the distinction between state and federal jurisdiction. In New Orleans v. United States, 35 U.S. (10 Pet.) 662, 737 (1836), the United States claimed title to property in New Orleans likewise claimed by the city. After holding that title to the subject lands was owned by the city, the Court addressed the question of federal jurisdiction: In New York v. Miln, 36 U.S. (11 Pet.) 102 (1837), the question before the Court involved an attempt by the City of New York to assess penalties against the master of a ship for his failure to make a report regarding the persons his ship brought to New York. As against the master's contention that the act was unconstitutional and that New York had no jurisdiction in the matter, the Court held: Some eight years later in Pollard v. Hagan, 44 U.S. (3 How.) 212 (1845), the question of federal jurisdiction was once again before the Court. This case involved a real property title dispute with one of the parties claiming a right to the contested property via a U.S. patent; the lands in question were situated in Mobile, Alabama, adjacent to Mobile Bay. In discussing the subject of federal jurisdiction, the Court held: The single most important case regarding the subject of federal jurisdiction appears to be Fort Leavenworth R. Co. v. Lowe, 114 U.S. 525, 531, 5 S.Ct. 995 (1885), which sets forth the law on this point fully. Here, the railroad company property which passed through the Fort Leavenworth federal enclave was being subjected to taxation by Kansas, and the company claimed an exemption from state taxation because its property was within federal jurisdiction and outside that of the state. In holding that the railroad company's property could be taxed, the Court carefully explained federal jurisdiction within the States: Thus the cases decided within the 19th century clearly disclosed the extent and scope of both State and federal jurisdiction. In essence, these cases, among many others, hold that the jurisdiction of any particular State is co-extensive with its borders or territory, and all persons and property located or found therein are subject to that jurisdiction; this jurisdiction is superior. Federal jurisdiction results from a conveyance of state jurisdiction to the federal government for lands owned or otherwise possessed by the federal government, and thus federal jurisdiction is extremely limited in nature. There is no federal jurisdiction if there be no grant or cession of jurisdiction by the State to the federal government. Therefore, federal territorial jurisdiction exists only in Washington, D.C., the federal enclaves within the States, and the territories and insular possessions of the United States.

The above principles of jurisdiction established in the last century continue their vitality today with only one minor exception. In the last century, the cessions of jurisdiction by States to the federal government were by legislative acts which typically ceded full jurisdiction to the federal government, thus placing in the hands of the federal government the troublesome problem of dealing with and governing scattered, localized federal enclaves which had been totally surrendered by the States. With the advent in this century of large federal works projects and national parks, the problems regarding management of these areas by the federal government were magnified. During the last century, it was thought that if a State ceded jurisdiction to the federal government, the cession granted full and complete jurisdiction. But with the ever increasing number of separate tracts of land falling within the jurisdiction of the federal government in this century, it was obviously determined by both federal and state public officials that the States should retain greater control over these ceded lands, and the courts have acknowledged the constitutionality of varying degrees of state jurisdiction and control over lands so ceded.

One of the first cases to acknowledge the proposition that a State could retain some jurisdiction over property ceded to the federal government was Surplus Trading Co. v. Cook, 281 U.S. 647, 50 S.Ct. 455 (1930). Here, a state attempt to assess an ad valorem tax on Army blankets located within a federal army camp was found invalid and beyond the state's jurisdiction. But in regards to the proposition that a State could make a qualified cession of jurisdiction to the federal government, the Court held:

Two cases decided in 1937 by the U.S. Supreme Court further clarify the constitutionality of a reservation of partial state jurisdiction over lands ceded to the jurisdiction of the United States. In James v. Dravo Contracting Company, 302 U.S. 134, 58 S.Ct. 208 (1937), the State of West Virginia sought to impose a tax upon the gross receipts of the company arising from a contract which it had made with the United States to build some dams. One of the issues involved in this case was the validity of the state tax imposed on the receipts derived by the company from work performed on lands to which the State had ceded "concurrent" jurisdiction to the United States. The Court held that a State could reserve and qualify any cession of jurisdiction for lands owned by the United States; since the State had done so here, the Court upheld this part of the challenged tax notwithstanding a partial cession of jurisdiction to the U.S. A similar result occurred in Silas Mason Co. v. Tax Commission of State of Washington, 302 U.S. 186, 58 S.Ct. 233 (1937). Here, the United States was undertaking the construction of several dams on the Columbia River in Washington, and had purchased the lands necessary for the project. Silas Mason obtained a contract to build a part of the Grand Coulee Dam, but filed suit challenging the Washington income tax when that State sought to impose that tax on the contract proceeds. Mason's argument that the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction over both the lands and its contract was not upheld by either the Supreme Court of Washington or the U.S. Supreme Court. The latter Court held that none of the lands owned by the U.S. were within its jurisdiction and thus Washington clearly had jurisdiction to impose the challenged tax; see also Wilson v. Cook, 327 U.S. 474, 66 S.Ct. 663 (1946).

Some few years later in 1943, the Supreme Court was again presented with similar taxation and jurisdiction issues; the facts in these two cases were identical with the exception that one clearly involved lands ceded to the jurisdiction of the United States. This single difference caused directly opposite results in both cases. In Pacific Coast Dairy v. Department of Agriculture of California, 318 U.S. 285, 63 S.Ct. 628 (1943), the question involved the applicability of state law to a contract entered into and performed on a federal enclave to which jurisdiction had been ceded to the United States. During World War II, California passed a law setting a minimum price for the sale of milk, and this law imposed penalties for sales made below the regulated price. Here, Pacific Coast Dairy consummated a contract on Moffett Field, a federal enclave within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, to sell milk to such federal facility at below the regulated price. When this occurred, California sought to impose a penalty for what it perceived as a violation of state law. But, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to permit the enforcement of the California law, holding that the contract was made and performed in a territory outside the jurisdiction of California and within the jurisdiction of the United States, a place where this law didn't apply. Thus in this case, the existence of federal jurisdiction was the foundation for the decision. However, in Penn Dairies v. Milk Control Commission of Pennsylvania, 318 U.S. 261, 63 S.Ct. 617 (1943), an opposite result was reached on almost identical facts. Here, Pennsylvania likewise had a law which regulated the price of milk and penalized milk sales below the regulated price. During World War II, the United States leased some land from Pennsylvania for the construction of a military camp; since the land was leased, Pennsylvania did not cede jurisdiction to the United States. When Penn Dairies sold milk to the military facility for a price below the regulated price, the Commission sought to impose the penalty. In this case, since there was no federal jurisdiction, the Supreme Court found that the state law applied and permitted the imposition of the penalty. These two cases clearly show the different results which can occur with the presence or absence of federal jurisdiction.

A final point regarding federal jurisdiction concerns the question of when such jurisdiction ends or ceases. This issue was considered in S.R.A. v. Minnesota, 327 U.S. 558, 563-64, 66 S.Ct. 749 (1946), which involved the power of a State to tax the real property interest of a purchaser of land sold by the United States. Here, a federal post office building was sold to S.R.A. pursuant to a real estates sale contract which provided that title would pass only after the purchase price had been paid. In refuting the argument of S.R.A. that the ad valorem tax on its equitable interest in the property was really an unlawful tax on U.S. property, the Court held:

Thus when any property within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States is no longer utilized by that government for governmental purposes, and the title or any interest therein is conveyed to private interests, the jurisdiction of the federal government ceases and jurisdiction once again reverts to the State.

The above principles regarding the distinction between State and federal jurisdiction continue today; see Paul v. United States, 371 U.S. 245, 83 S.Ct. 426 (1963), and United States v. State Tax Commission of Mississippi, 412 U.S. 363, 93 S.Ct. 2183 (1973). What was definitely decided in the beginning days of this Republic regarding the extent, scope, and reach of each of these two distinct jurisdictions remains unchanged and forms the foundation and basis for the smooth workings of state governmental systems in conjunction with the federal government. Without such jurisdictional principles which form a clear boundary between the jurisdiction of the States and the United States, our federal governmental system would have surely met its demise long before now.

In summary, the jurisdiction of the States is essentially the same as they possessed when they were leagued together under the Articles of Confederation. The confederated States possessed absolute, complete and full jurisdiction over property and persons located within their borders. It is hypocritical to assume or argue that these States, which had banished the centralized power and jurisdiction of the English Parliament and Crown over them by the Declaration of Independence, would shortly thereafter cede comparable power and jurisdiction to the Confederation Congress. They did not and they closely and jealously guarded their own rights, powers and jurisdiction. When the Articles were replaced by the Constitution, the intent and purpose of the States was to retain their same powers and jurisdiction, with a small concession of jurisdiction to the United States of lands found essential for the operation of that government. However, even this provision did not operate to instantly change any aspect of state jurisdiction, it only permitted its future operation wherein any State, by its own volition, should choose to cede jurisdiction to the United States.

By the adoption of the Constitution, the States jointly surrendered some 17 specific and well defined powers to the federal Congress, which related almost entirely to external affairs of the States. Any single delegated power, or even several powers combined, do not operate in a fashion so as to invade or divest a State of its jurisdiction. As against a single State, the remainder of the States under the Constitution have no right to jurisdiction within the single State absent its consent.

The only provision in the Constitution which permits territorial jurisdiction to be vested in the United States is found in Art. I, 8, cl. 17, which provides the mechanism for a voluntary cession of jurisdiction from any State to the United States. When the Constitution was adopted, the United States had jurisdiction over no lands within the States, and it possessed jurisdiction only in the lands encompassed in the Northwest Territories. Shortly after formation of the Union, Maryland and Virginia ceded jurisdiction to the United States for Washington, D.C. Over time, the States have ceded jurisdiction to federal enclaves within the States. Today, the territorial jurisdiction of the United States is found only in such ceded areas, which encompass Washington, D.C., the federal enclaves within the States, and such territories and possessions which may now be owned by the United States.

The above conclusion is buttressed by the opinion of the federal government itself. In June 1957, the United States government published a work entitled Jurisdiction Over Federal Areas Within The States: Report of the Interdepartmental Committee for the Study of Jurisdiction Over Federal Areas Within the States, Part II, and this report is the definitive study on this issue. Therein, the Committee stated:

Thus from a wealth of case law, in addition to this lengthy and definitive government treatise, the "jurisdiction of the United States" is identified as a very precise and carefully defined portion of America. The United States is one of the 50 jurisdictions existing on this continent, excluding Canada and its provinces.

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[Note for the reader: The above memo discusses only about 140 cases. If you wish to find more cases addressing the issue of federal territorial jurisdiction, please see the other 3 separate files noted on the webpage. The important U.S. Supreme Court cases are all cataloged in their own file; the same type of cases from each federal circuit and each state are found in the other two files. If you wish to learn more about how federal laws are applicable outside "its jurisdiction," please study the brief regarding treaties.]

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