Reservation of Jurisdiction by States

For more than a century the Supreme Court kept alive, by repeated dicta,1841 the doubt expressed by Justice Story “whether Congress are by the terms of the Constitution, at liberty to purchase lands for forts, dockyards, etc., with the consent of a State legislature, where such consent is so qualified that it will not justify the ‘exclusive legislation’ of Congress there. It may well be doubted if such consent be not utterly void.”1842 But when the issue was squarely presented in 1937, the Court ruled that, when the United States purchases property within a state with the consent of the latter, it is valid for the state to convey, and for the United States to accept, “concurrent jurisdiction” over such land, the state reserving to itself the right to execute process “and such other jurisdiction and authority over the same as is not inconsistent with the jurisdiction ceded to the United States.”1843 The holding logically renders the second half of clause 17 superfluous. In a companion case, the Court ruled further that even if a general state statute purports to cede exclusive jurisdiction, such jurisdiction does not pass unless the United States accepts it.1844

Footnotes

1841
Fort Leavenworth R.R. v. Lowe, 114 U.S. 525, 532 (1885); United States v. Unzeuta, 281 U.S. 138, 142 (1930); Surplus Trading Co. v. Cook, 281 U.S. 647, 652 (1930). [Back to text]
1842
United States v. Cornell, 25 Fed. Cas. 646, 649 (No. 14,867) (C.C.D.R.I. 1819). [Back to text]
1843
James v. Dravo Contracting Co., 302 U.S. 134, 145 (1937). [Back to text]
1844
Mason Co. v. Tax Comm’n, 302 U.S. 186 (1937). See also Atkinson v. Tax Comm’n, 303 U.S. 20 (1938). [Back to text]