Montoyas lose in land grant dispute

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By Lee Einer

The New Mexico Supreme Court has let stand a lower court decision against a family trying to get ownership of land from the Tecolote Land Grant.

The decision follows a hearing before the full Supreme Court on Oct 14.

“All five of them agreed that the case should never have been brought before the Supreme Court,” said Charles Thompson, the land grant’s attorney. “I would assume that the Court of Appeals will send a mandate down to (District Court Judge Daniel) Sanchez to dismiss the lawsuit, as that is what the Court of Appeals previously ruled.”

Attorney Pete Domenici Jr., who represented the Montoya family, challenged the appeals court decision rendered earlier this year in favor of the land grant.

Domenici said he hadn’t heard about the Supreme Court’s decision as of Wednesday afternoon. He said he would have to talk with his clients before determining what their next step should be. He said they have a couple of options: either asking the state Supreme Court to reconsider or appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Those are the two options that come to mind,” he said.

The case, brought by several members of the Montoya family, sought to transfer nearly 20,000 acres of the land grant from the community of Tecolote to the Montoyas’ private ownership.

Judge Sanchez ruled in favor of the Montoyas, but the land grant board appealed, and the decision rendered by the state Court of Appeals reversed Sanchez’s judgment and effectively dismissed the Montoyas’ complaint.

The Tecolote land grant was originally awarded by the Mexican government to Salvatore Montoya and five other unnamed individuals in 1824. But the surveyor general recommended that the land be given to the town of Tecolote, and Congress confirmed that recommendation in 1858. The land was officially deeded to the community of Tecolote in 1902 by then-President Theodore Roosevelt in accordance with Congress’ confirmation of the land grant.

The appeals court’s decision was largely based on an 1876 U.S. Supreme Court decision called Tameling v. United States Freehold and Emigration Co., and the decision is referred to now as the “Tameling bar,” as it bars attack on land grant patents awarded by the U.S. government. As the decision states, “When Congress confirms a land grant, its determination concerning the origin, nature, character and size of a land grant is conclusive and is not subject to attack in a court or any other forum.”

The Montoya family’s 1999 legal effort to gain possession of Tecolote Land Grant land was not their first. Attorney Thomas Catron filed a petition on behalf of himself and the heirs of Salvatore Montoya in 1885, seeking for the Tecolote Land Grant to be reconfirmed as a private land grant. His petition was rejected, and he appealed to the Secretary of the Interior. The Department of the Interior also rejected his claim, noting that “Congress with the whole record before it has confirmed said grant to the town of Tecolote.”