Colorado in the late 1800’s was on the verge of a mining revolution — one that would culminate in a political reckoning for many lawmakers, politicians, attorneys and judges. The case of Justice Mine involved many typical political issues but added what was then a novel question for the Colorado Supreme Court: Can a non-citizen purchase land that was previously classified as “public land?” And when can someone petition that sale?
The mine, located in Gilpin County, primarily excavated lead, which was then used in many commercial products. The profitable Justice Mine was in the process of being purchased by a third party in 1885 when a lawsuit emerged challenging the propriety of the sale because the recipients of the land would be “aliens,” or non-citizens of the U.S. The case bounced back and forth in the court system for several years before landing in the state Supreme Court in 1895.
The original legal issue was that of the citizenship of the recipients, who were both non-citizens and, pertinent to the state laws at the time, had not expressed an interest to become citizens. Colorado gained statehood almost 20 years earlier but retained a number of territorial laws that enforced strict land ownership regulations for anyone who could have been considered an atypical buyer in the area at the time.
The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the petition against the land patent was brought prematurely, since the matter was still pending pro-ceedings in the land office, which also held jurisdiction on the matter. The judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed on these grounds, and the case was remanded with instructions to affirm the judgment of the district court, which had originally ruled that the case be dismissed and all costs should be paid by the plaintiff.
The issue of land ownership for non-citizens was not formally addressed nationwide until 1923 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the restrictive land ownership laws in many states did not infringe upon “aliens’ rights to equal protection under the 14th Amendment.”
Federal laws such as the 1870 Naturalization Act only protected specific rights for black Americans but clearly stated other “classes of aliens” were ineligible for citizenship. This loophole allowed any municipality to embed discriminatory preventative measures that would make land ownership nearly impossible for many who fell under this umbrella at the time, including many Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Various “alien land laws” existed at state levels until 1952, when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed course on previous rulings and said the laws were unconstitutional.
A few years after the Justice Mine case was resolved, Colorado’s mining and labor law issues would escalate to the point of explosive violence in the state’s mountain towns.
By the end of the yearlong protest and strike marathon, the state’s delegation of Western Federation of Miners entered into a renewed fight for justice that focused more on monetary relief and findings for the damages inflicted on the industry workers over the four years of sustained union squabbling, violent demonstrations and strike-related deaths. But the issue of Justice Mine remained a novel one for years in the state and set a precedent for future right of purchase disputes.