Camfield v. United States
167 U.S. 518 (1897)

  • Camfield and Drury were cattle ranchers in Colorado. They built a fence on their property in order to keep in the cattle. The way the fence was constructed though, it basically cordoned off 20,000 acres of Federally-owned land.
    • At the time, Federally-owned land was available for use by anyone, but by building their fences the way they did, Camfield and Drury made it impossible for anyone else's cattle to get to the land.
  • Based on the Unlawful Enclosures Act (43 U.S.C. 1061), the Federal government told Camfield and Drury to tear down the fence and allow free access to the Federal land. Camfield and Drury refused. The Federal government sued.
  • The Trial Court found for the US. Camfield and Drury appealed.
    • Camfield and Drury argued that they weren't intentionally stopping people from access the Federal land. They had even put in gates to allow passage.
    • Camfield and Drury also argued that they had made a lot of irrigation improvement to their land, which also benefited the Federal land.
    • Camfield and Drury also argued that they owned their property and had a right to put up fences on it as they liked.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Camfield and Drury appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed and ordered the fences removed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that property rights are limited when they become a nuisance or limit the property rights of neighbors.
    • The Court found that the fences did constitute a nuisance, and that the Federal government (as owner of the public lands) had a right to order the nuisance removed.
  • Camfield and Drury didn't make the argument that the Unlawful Enclosures Act was unconstitutional since it affected private property.
    • However, the US could have argued that the Property Clause gave them the authority to make the law.
  • Part of the problem in this case was that when the US had partitioned parts of Colorado into private sections and public lands, it did so in a checkerboard pattern, where every odd section was private and every even section was public. That made it really inconvenient for the owners of the private sections to use their land effectively.
    • The Court said that the private individuals who bought the land knew what the deal was, and were taking a calculated risk when they made the purchase.
    • Of course, you could make the reverse argument that if the Federal government didn't want people enclosing their land, they shouldn't have sold it off in such a ridiculous manner.