ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) - Alaska may not sue the federal government to quiet title to 200 acres of land allotted to two Alaska Natives, the Ninth Circuit ruled Monday.
Sisters Agnes and Anne Purdy acquired the land parcels at issue under the Alaska Native Allotment Act, but Alaska argued that the allotments were subject to rights-of-way for four public trails under what the Circuit's opinion called an "unusual" federal statute.
The 1866 statute, known as R.S. 2477, provides that "the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is granted." The law is self-executing, in that "no formal document memorializing the grant of a right-of-way needed to be executed by a federal official."
Congress repealed the statute in 1976, but rights-of-way in existence on the date of repeal were preserved, according to the Circuit's 15-page opinion.
Alaska sued the Purdys and the United States in Federal Court, seeking to quiet title, declaratory judgment and condemnation for public use "whatever portions of the rights-of-way the state does not already own."
A federal judge dismissed the state's claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and the Circuit upheld the court's decision.
Writing for the three-judge-panel, Circuit Judge Paul Watford said that Alaska's quiet title claim is barred by the Quiet Title Act, which excludes from its coverage claims involving "trust or restricted Indian lands."
The exclusion preserves the United States' immunity from suit "when the United States claims an interest in real property based on that property's status as trust or restricted Indian lands."
Watford held that the exclusion applies here because the federal government has a "colorable claim" that the allotments at issue are restricted Indian lands.
And "we do not have a clear and undisputed grant from the federal government to the state of an interest in the Purdys' allotments," he added.
Watford also held that the federal judge properly dismissed Alaska's claim for declaratory relief.
"A claim under the Declaratory Judgment Act may not be used as an end-run around the Quiet Title Act's limited waiver of sovereign immunity," he said.
But the state may be able to amend its condemnation claim, Watford said, and he vacated the trial court's dismissal of that claim.
"If the state wishes to condemn the contested rights-of-way in full and pay just compensation for their taking, it must make that intention clear," he said.
The Circuit remanded the condemnation claim to the trial court.
Circuit Judges William Canby Jr. and Jay Bybee rounded out the panel.
Neither side's lead counsel immediately responded to an email requesting comment on Monday morning.
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