United States v. Midwest Oil Co.
236 U.S. 459 (1915)
Under the Oil Placer Act of
1897 (29 Stat. 526), any person could go onto Federal lands and
search for oil. If they found some, they could apply for a patent (aka
"stake a claim") and extract as much oil as they wanted for
This was similar to the Mining
Law of 1872.
By 1909, the Dept of Interior
(DOI) realized that oil was a very valuable fuel and that there was a
limited supply. Based on their predictions, all of the oil on the west
coast would soon be in private hands, leaving none left for the US Navy.
This could mean that the US,
which owned the oil in the first place, would be giving it away to
private oil companies and then have to buy it back at great cost. That
President Taft issued an
executive order temporarily withdrawing a large number of parcels of Federal land from oil or mineral
The idea was to keep them
safe until Congress could act and change the law.
Midwest did some prospecting
on a withdrawn parcel of land in Wyoming, found some oil, and staked a
The Federal government sued to
get the land back and to recover the oil Midwest had extracted.
Midwest argued that the
President did not have the authority to unilaterally suspend a Statute.
Congress had explicitly allowed people to stake oil claims, and only
Congress could rescind that permission.
The Federal government
argued that the President had the authority under Article II §1 of the US Constitution to withdraw
public land from entry by private parties.
The US Supreme Court found the
President's actions to be constitutional.
The US Supreme Court noted
that in the past, the President had often withdrawn public land that would otherwise have been
open to staking oil or mineral claims without needing Congressional
For military bases, Indian
reservations and bird sanctuaries.
The Court didn't seem to
notice that withdrawals for those
purposes were not directly in contravention of a Statute like it was in
The Court found that this
was a long-standing practice, and Congress never seemed to have a problem
with it, so it should be presumed to be Constitutional.
The Court looked to Grisar
v. McDowell (6 Wall. 381
(1867)), which held that the
President has the inherent right to reserve from sale and set apart for
public uses parcels of land belonging to the US.
The Court assumed there was
an implicit delegation by
Congress to the President.
Midwest argued that there
was a difference between a reservation and a withdrawal,
but the Court did not find the difference to be important.
Midwest argued that even if
it is ok to reserve some land for
a specific purpose (such ad building a military base), that didn't make
it ok to withdraw the land
for no other reason that to just stop other people from using it.
In a dissent it was argued
that the Property Clause (Article
IV, §3, cl. 2) authorized Congress (not the President) to
dispose of public lands. All of the previous withdrawals (like the military bases and Indian
reservations) were for purposes Congress had already declared as being the
sort of thing public lands could be used for. In this case, Congress had
never authorized withdrawing
public lands for conservation purposes, so the President was acting
outside of any Congressional authority that might have been implicitly
delegated to him.
Much later, in the Federal
Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA)Congress
explicitly repealed the President's implicit authority to make withdrawals.
Interestingly, FLPMA (43 U.S.C. §1714) actually mentions this US Supreme Court
decision. The text of the Statute says:
"Effective on and
after the date of approval of this Act, the implied authority of the
President to make withdrawals and reservations resulting from the
acquiescence of Congress (U.S. v. Midwest Oil Co., 236 U.S. 459)...is