Memorandum of Disapproval of Bill Relating to Certain Public Lands Along the Colorado River
I have withheld my approval from H.R. 10256, a bill, "To render the assertion of land claims by the United States based upon accretion or avulsion subject to legal and equitable defense to which private persons asserting such claims would be subject."
On November 14, 1966, I had the unpleasant duty of withholding my approval from a similar bill, H.R. 13955, 89th Congress, relating to title to the same 2,100 acres of land in California covered by the present bill.
In my Memorandum of Disapproval on the earlier bill, I urged that the Congress permit the legal issue of title to be adjudicated in the traditional manner in the courts, then, "If the case is resolved against the claimants and the Congress believes that the equities were so compelling that relief should have been granted, the Congress can act after the factual issues have been fully litigated and a complete record has been assembled." H.R. 10256 does recognize that the court is the appropriate forum for deciding the legal issue of title, but it goes further. It grants the 19 individuals and corporations claiming under the bill special and unprecedented defenses against the U.S.. such as laches, equitable estoppel, and adverse possession.
Since the parties are already in court, the only purpose the bill serves is to grant these special defenses to the claimants. Any one of these defenses could preclude a decision on the merits of the title issue. The bill has the effect of changing, after the U.S.. has filed suit, the rules which would otherwise be applicable to a case of this kind. If this bill were to become law, it would establish a most undesirable precedent with far-reaching consequences. It would deprive the U.S.. of its sovereign immunity to loss of the public lands by adverse possession, an immunity that is essential if we are to provide adequate protection of the people's interest in the more than 450 million acres of public lands. Moreover, the Federal Government must necessarily act through its officers and employees, and these agents cannot always act in a timely fashion to protect the public interest in lands because of other priorities, lack of funds or personnel, or other reasons.
California, where the land in question is located, and the adjoining State of Arizona both protect their own lands from alienation through adverse possession, and I believe the U.S.. should do no less.
In recent years, many hundreds of trespassers on public lands along the Colorado River have, as a result of Government action, left the land or have arranged leases from the Government. Others have been removed by court action, and others are still engaged in title litigation. It would be manifestly unfair to all of these persons whose cases were or are fully governed by the customary legal rules to recognize special rules on behalf of the group of claimants covered by H.R. 10256.
For the foregoing reasons, and since there has been no relevant change in the facts and circumstances of this case since my disapproval of the earlier bill, I feel compelled to withhold my approval from the present bill. I urge the Congress to allow the pending case to go forward to decision in accordance with the rules of law governing all cases in which there is a dispute over land claimed by the U.S..
LYNDON B. JOHNSON
The White House
October 25, 1968
Note: For the President's memorandum of disapproval of H.R. 13955, 89th Congress, on November 14, 1966, see 1966 volume, this series, Book II, Item 615.
Released October 26, 1968. Dated October 25, 1968.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Memorandum of Disapproval of Bill Relating to Certain Public Lands Along the Colorado River Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/236895