It's New Mexico vs. Texas over 600,000 acres

From this story.

The essentials:

NM’s State Senate approved a bill ordering the state attorney general to sue Texas over 603,485 acres of land along the Texas-New Mexico border.

NM claims that the land was mistakenly placed in Texas due to a land surveyor’s error in 1859. Federal officials agreed in 1910 that the surveryor botched the job. There are several Texas towns currently in the disputed land.

However, in 1911, the Feds told NM to give up the land claim, or don’t become a state. NM became a state the next year.

The bill goes to the House next.

OK, my questions are as follows:

  1. Assuming the measure passes the House and the governor signs it, is the AG actually required to file the suit?

  2. Where would this suit be filed? Federal court?

  3. Since NM (according to the article) gave up their claim in exchange for statehood consideration in 1911, do they have any case?

  4. Do the people living in the disputed towns have any say in the matter?

  5. Can the Federal courts force one state to give up land to another?

  6. Could Congress step in and unilaterally pass a law establishing the Texas-New Mexico boundary?

  7. I know that there have been other land disputes between states (such as NY and NJ over Liberty Island), but I don’t think any of them ever went to court. Am I correct on this?

  8. Assuming it does go to court, what are New Mexico’s chances of winning?

I know it’s a lot of questions. Thank you for your help.

Zev Steinhardt

The case would be filed in the Supreme Court. Disputes between states is one of the few times SCOTUS has original jurisdiction over a case. Have to get back to you on the rest.

I’ve heard before that would have to risk losing their original statehood in order to get the land back, no cite and it’s probably not true.

Nope, although it fell short of 600,000 acres.

There is an island in the Savannah River that had previously belonged to Georga. However, it was awarded to South Carolina some years ago. I remember it involved “prescription and acquiescence.” Something about some hillbilly types that had made a homestead there. Don’t recall all the details, but it was in the last 20 years.

OK. Found the details (if you’re interested):

We’d need to see the exact text of the bill, but in general, yes. Executive officers have a duty to execute the laws of their state.

SCOTUS, as noted.

Probably not. When boundaries have been surveyed, monumented, and accepted over a long period of time, they take on a life of their own. There are surveying errors in almost any boundary–look closely at maps of the states and you’ll see a lot of jiggly lines.

Not directly. The principle of “acquiescence”, in a way, recognizes that people don’t usually want to be moved after they buy land which they assumed in good faith belonged to a particular jurisdiction.


NM would be asking the Supreme Court not to order Texas to “give up” land but rather to rule that it never had the land.


I don’t believe there has ever been a case where Congress unilaterally took land away from a state after admission. All of NM east of the Rio Grande originally belonged to Texas, but the Boundary Act of 1850 which remanded that land to territorial status required the consent of Texas to take effect. I believe that a new law changing the boundary would be challenged.


No, many state boundary disputes have been litigated. We had one in Illinois some years back concerning the Ohio River boundary with Kentucky.


In my opinion, close to nil.

The case, if it doesn’t get unceremoniously tossed, could also last decades. I did some grunt work on one case which dragged on for forty-eight years.

Another border dispute that has been litigated: The dispute between Maine and New Hampshire over Seavey Island, site of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Despite the name of the shipyard, it is generally considered to be part of Kittery, Maine, not Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Possession of the land itself isn’t really an issue, since it’s owned by the Federal Government. The real issue is whether Maine has the right to charge income tax of New Hampshire residents who work there. The Supreme Court ruled in 1977 and againin 2001 that the island is in Maine.

I bet it was Arizona v. California! I studied that one in school for a law review article.

Excellent call, pravnik. Good old No. 8, Original. I think it’s done for now, but my attention has drifted elsewhere and I haven’t paid attention to more recent developments.

Boundary disputes where one state sues another in the United States Supreme Court are actually fairly common, albeit less common than they used to be. But you still see them. For example, there has been a long-running dispute between Louisiana and Mississippi over where on the Mississippi River the boundary betweem them lies, which has reached the Supreme Court at least five times. This opinion from 1995 also mentions three other cases involving five other states:

Not necessarily. In the U.S., if an attorney believes the lawsuit would be frivolous, they are ethically bound to refuse to file it, regardless of the client’s wishes.

In addition, if filing a frivolous lawsuit violates the Court’s rules, the legislative branch could not order any attorney to file it, even if the attorney worked for the exective branch. Attorneys in the U.S. are actually, believe it or not, Officers of the Court so this becomes a separation of powers issue.

Here is another interesting wrinkle: New Mexico establishes its boundaries in its own state constitution:

jklann is correct that, generally speaking, “executive officers have a duty to execute the laws of their state.” But if the claim that the Legislature now wants to prosecute is contrary to the boundaries that the state constitution sets out, then the attorney general may argue that the statute is void because it conflicts with the constitution.

I thought perhaps this thread would address all the Texans who own the Valle Grande.

Oh well. Texans intrude. It’s their nature. Although why they’d want a few acres of eastern NM along the border is beyond me…

Actually, in this case, the AG would be seeking to enforce the 103rd meridian boundary as set out in the state Constitution and federal law. You can actually see the surveying error on a map of New Mexico. Notice how the boundary between New Mexico and the Oklahoma panhandle is flush with the 103rd meridian, as it should be. Then, at the junction with Texas, it juts out about two miles to the west. Such is the error. But, again, after all parties have “acquiesced” in this boundary for 150 years, it is unlikely to be moved.

I don’t know. After all, Sandia Pueblo got their lines moved, or property rights changed, or something, in the last few years after no one had even known it was an issue.

Because that part of Texas has a whooole buncha oil.