Memorandum of Disapproval of Bill Concerning Claims Arising as a Result of Construction of Elephant Butte Dam.
I HAVE WITHHELD my approval from S. 417, a bill "Conferring jurisdiction upon the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, to hear, determine, and render judgment upon certain claims arising as a result of the construction by the United States of Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande."
Under S. 417, jurisdiction would be vested, notwithstanding any statute of limitations or lapse of time, in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, "to hear, determine, and render judgment upon any claim against the United States for compensation for the taking of or for damage to real or personal property as a result of the construction by the United States of Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande."
The bill does not identify the persons to whom it would open the doors of the district court. It does not identify the date or dates on which the alleged taking of property or damage occurred. It does not identify the events which might be alleged to have caused the damage or the taking. Its only requirement is that suit be filed within two years from the date of enactment of the bill.
Construction of Elephant Butte dam was commenced by the Interior Department in 1912. Approval of the bill would thus be an open invitation to anyone who believes that he has, at any time over the last 42 years, been injured in his property by the construction of this dam to bring the United States into court, no matter how stale his claim may be.
It appears that the cases around which the hearings on the bill principally turned are those of a number of persons who believe that the existence of the dam, taken in conjunction with the severe floods that descended the Rio Grande Valley in 1929, resulted in the permanent seeping or swamping, from and after that year, of their lands in the neighborhood of the now abandoned town of San Marcial. I am aware of no showing, however, that these landowners did not have an adequate opportunity to pursue their legal remedies within the period prescribed by general law or that there were sound reasons for their failure to do so. Still less am I aware of any reasons for including within the coverage of the bill not only these landowners, but also all others who, regardless of time, attribute a damaging or destruction of their property to the construction of Elephant Butte dam.
The very purpose of a statute of limitations--whether it relates to suits between private citizens or to suits brought against the Government--is to avoid stale claims and to procure a reasonably prompt initiation of judicial action before records are lost or scattered, memories grow dim, and witnesses die or become unavailable. To say this is not to say that compliance with the statute must be insisted upon in cases where its waiver would avoid a clear inequity. The instant bill, however, is not in this exceptional category. On the contrary, the controversies with which it deals necessarily involve the resolution of questions of fact, of which some, at least, would require oral testimony from persons familiar with conditions as they were at the time when the claims originally arose.. Thus, the nature of the claims here involved emphasizes the justice and wisdom of the general rule. Against this background, nothing in the terms or history of S. 417 of which I am informed offers any sound ground for the departure from existing law which the bill would sanction.
Beyond these considerations there is, in my judgment, no more merit to waiving the statute of limitations in order to permit the trying of cases which may range over all the 40-odd years of Elephant Butte history than there would be in the case of any other Federal river-control structure. In other words, I am seriously concerned that an exception as broad as that which S. 417 proposes to make in the case of Elephant Butte would be a precedent for attempts to secure similarly over-generous legislation in the case of every other Federal river-control structure that anyone believes has caused him harm, regardless of how long ago the harm occurred.
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER
Note: This memorandum was released at Lowry Air Force Base, Denver, Colo.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Memorandum of Disapproval of Bill Concerning Claims Arising as a Result of Construction of Elephant Butte Dam. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/231813