ArtI.S8.C17.2 Power Over Places Purchased

Article I, Section 8, Clause 17:

[The Congress shall have Power . . . ] To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;–And . . .

This clause has been broadly construed to cover all structures necessary for carrying on the business of the National Government.1 It includes post offices,2 a hospital and a hotel located in a national park,3 and locks and dams for the improvement of navigation.4 But it does not cover lands acquired for forests, parks, ranges, wild life sanctuaries or flood control.5 Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has held that a state may convey, and the Congress may accept, either exclusive or qualified jurisdiction over property acquired within the geographical limits of a state, for purposes other than those enumerated in clause 17.6

After exclusive jurisdiction over lands within a state has been ceded to the United States, Congress alone has the power to punish crimes committed within the ceded territory.7 Private property located thereon is not subject to taxation by the state,8 nor can state statutes enacted subsequent to the transfer have any operation therein.9 But the local laws in force at the date of cession that are protective of private rights continue in force until abrogated by Congress.10 Moreover, as long as there is no interference with the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, an area subject to such jurisdiction may be annexed by a municipality.11

Duration of Federal Jurisdiction

A state may qualify its cession of territory by a condition that jurisdiction shall be retained by the United States only so long as the place is used for specified purposes.12 Such a provision operates prospectively and does not except from the grant that portion of a described tract which is then used as a railroad right of way.13 In 1892, the Court upheld the jurisdiction of the United States to try a person charged with murder on a military reservation, over the objection that the state had ceded jurisdiction only over such portions of the area as were used for military purposes and that the particular place on which the murder was committed was used solely for farming. The Court held that the character and purpose of the occupation having been officially established by the political department of the government, it was not open to the Court to inquire into the actual uses to which any portion of the area was temporarily put.14 A few years later, however, it ruled that the lease to a city, for use as a market, of a portion of an area which had been ceded to the United States for a particular purpose, suspended the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States.15

The question arose whether the United States retains jurisdiction over a place that was ceded to it unconditionally, after it has abandoned the use of the property for governmental purposes and entered into a contract for sale to private persons. Minnesota asserted the right to tax the equitable interest of the purchaser in such land, and the Supreme Court upheld its right to do so. The majority assumed that the Government's unrestricted transfer of property to nonfederal hands is a relinquishment of the exclusive legislative power.16 In separate concurring opinions, Chief Justice Stone and Justice Frankfurter reserved judgment on the question of territorial jurisdiction.17

Reservation of Jurisdiction by States

For more than a century the Supreme Court kept alive, by repeated dicta,18 the doubt expressed by Justice Story whether Congress are by the terms of the Constitution, at liberty to purchase lands for forts, dockyards, etc., with the consent of a State legislature, where such consent is so qualified that it will not justify the 'exclusive legislation' of Congress there. It may well be doubted if such consent be not utterly void.19 But when the issue was squarely presented in 1937, the Court ruled that, when the United States purchases property within a state with the consent of the latter, it is valid for the state to convey, and for the United States to accept, concurrent jurisdiction over such land, the state reserving to itself the right to execute process and such other jurisdiction and authority over the same as is not inconsistent with the jurisdiction ceded to the United States.20 The holding logically renders the second half of clause 17 superfluous. In a companion case, the Court ruled further that even if a general state statute purports to cede exclusive jurisdiction, such jurisdiction does not pass unless the United States accepts it.21


  1.  Jump to essay-1James v. Dravo Contracting Co., 302 U.S. 134, 143 (1937).
  2.  Jump to essay-2Battle v. United States, 209 U.S. 36 (1908).
  3.  Jump to essay-3Arlington Hotel v. Fant, 278 U.S. 439 (1929).
  4.  Jump to essay-4James v. Dravo Contracting Co., 302 U.S. 134, 143 (1937).
  5.  Jump to essay-5Collins v. Yosemite Park Co., 304 U.S. 518, 530 (1938).
  6.  Jump to essay-6304 U.S. at 528.
  7.  Jump to essay-7Battle v. United States, 209 U.S. 36 (1908); Johnson v. Yellow Cab Co., 321 U.S. 383 (1944); Bowen v. Johnston, 306 U.S. 19 (1939).
  8.  Jump to essay-8Surplus Trading Co. v. Cook, 281 U.S. 647 (1930).
  9.  Jump to essay-9Western Union Tel. Co. v. Chiles, 214 U.S. 274 (1909); Arlington Hotel v. Fant, 278 U.S. 439 (1929); Pacific Coast Dairy v. Department of Agriculture, 318 U.S. 285 (1943). The Assimilative Crimes Act of 1948, 18 U.S.C. § 13, making applicable to a federal enclave a subsequently enacted criminal law of the state in which the enclave is situated entails no invalid delegation of legislative power to the state. United States v. Sharpnack, 355 U.S. 286, 294, 296–97 (1958).
  10.  Jump to essay-10Chicago, R.I. & P. Ry. v. McGlinn, 114 U.S. 542, 545 (1885); Stewart & Co. v. Sadrakula, 309 U.S. 94 (1940).
  11.  Jump to essay-11Howard v. Commissioners, 344 U.S. 624 (1953). As Howard recognized, such areas of federal property do not cease to be part of the state in which they are located and the residents of the areas are for most purposes residents of the state. Thus, a state may not constitutionally exclude such residents from the privileges of suffrage if they are otherwise qualified. Evans v. Cornman, 398 U.S. 419 (1970).
  12.  Jump to essay-12Palmer v. Barrett, 162 U.S. 399 (1896).
  13.  Jump to essay-13United States v. Unzeuta, 281 U.S. 138 (1930).
  14.  Jump to essay-14Benson v. United States, 146 U.S. 325, 331 (1892).
  15.  Jump to essay-15Palmer v. Barrett, 162 U.S. 399 (1896).
  16.  Jump to essay-16S.R.A., Inc. v. Minnesota, 327 U.S. 558, 564 (1946).
  17.  Jump to essay-17327 U.S. at 570, 571.
  18.  Jump to essay-18Fort Leavenworth R.R. v. Lowe, 114 U.S. 525, 532 (1885); United States v. Unzeuta, 281 U.S. 138, 142 (1930); Surplus Trading Co. v. Cook, 281 U.S. 647, 652 (1930).
  19.  Jump to essay-19United States v. Cornell, 25 F. Cas. 646, 649 (No. 14867) (C.C.D.R.I. 1819).
  20.  Jump to essay-20James v. Dravo Contracting Co., 302 U.S. 134, 145 (1937).
  21.  Jump to essay-21Mason Co. v. Tax Comm'n, 302 U.S. 186 (1937). See also Atkinson v. Tax Comm'n, 303 U.S. 20 (1938).