For many landowners, land patents are a vaguely defined or even foreign concept. These days, the vast majority of regular Americans own their homes or properties through a deed or title issued by their local jurisdiction. In exchange, they pay property taxes, respect local building codes, follow local laws, and generally fulfill the roles and duties of strait-laced citizens.
Holders of land patents may enjoy additional privileges to which regular deed-holders aren't entitled. In laymen's terms, land patents take land ownership to the next level. Indeed, these legal designations may provide their holders with certain privileges that aren't typically associated with land ownership in the United States. What follows is a basic outline of the legal theory that underlies land patents.
Origins of Land Patents
The concept of the land patent originated in the early days of the American Republic. As has been well documented, the United States acquired its lands by entering into various treaties with its former owners. While it's perfectly reasonable to pass judgment on the means by which early American governments obtained much of the country's area, the fact remains that the treaties that established those governments' claims to the land are technically in force to this day.
As the United States grew, the General Land Office was tasked with managing and disbursing the country's treaty-acquired lands. By issuing land patents to landowners and settlers who applied for them, the office essentially transferred the rights conferred by the treaty to these individuals. These rights were held in perpetuity and said to take precedence over any subsequent legal strictures, including state laws and constitutional clauses.
Over time, the General Land Office sank into obscurity and was replaced by the Bureau of Land Management. Today, the BLM continues to issue land patents to owner-occupants and absentee landowners for a variety of reasons. In most cases, these patents are issued to protect landowners' mineral and drilling rights from state governments and resource extraction firms.
It's important to reiterate that state constitutions and statutes are generally deemed to be subordinate to federal land patents. The reason for this is simple: As a condition of admittance to the Union, 49 out of 50 states signed so-called "enabling acts" that formally ceded their lands to the federal government. Since the Republic of Texas never officially ceded its lands to the U.S. government during the annexation process, it stands as the one "outlier" state. Accordingly, it's questionable whether federal land patents have supremacy over patents and deeds that the government in Austin issues.
Over the years, various parties have charged that land patents are archaic instruments that can be abused by unscrupulous landowners and corporations. The legal spats that have arisen from these charges have produced a sizable body of legal precedence that supports the basic concept of land patents. Key court decisions include:
- Pacific Coast Dairy v. Department of Agriculture, 1943: Affirmed that federal law holds precedence over state law in federal enclaves within states, e.g. military reservations
- Arlington Hotel v. Fant: Established the right of the federal government to appropriate state-held lands for the "public good"
- Surplus Trading Company v. Cook: Confirmed that states could not place tax liens on businesses that owned land and did business within federal enclaves
In each of these cases, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the supremacy of federal property rights over local and state laws. This is the nub of the legal theory of land patents.
Benefits and Inherent Value
For the private citizens known as freeholders, land patents offer several clear benefits. They may free landowners from responsibility for honoring liens on their property, including those imposed by the state for unpaid taxes. Further, they may permit their holders to retain the title to their lands in the face of state threats of seizure or eviction. They can also be transferred easily by means of inheritance. Perhaps most importantly, land patents permit their holders to dispose with their land as they see fit. This attribute can be particularly useful during disputes over mineral and drilling rights.
Still curious? You're in luck! In our next post, we'll cover the ways to obtain a federal land patent.
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