Geography

Colorado’s Constitution Describes the Wrong Boundaries

#37thParallel #Colorado #NewMexico #maps

In the interest of full disclosure, the Commonplace Fun Facts editorial staff admits that we have a profound love of the state of Colorado. Its rich natural beauty and cultural heritage make it one of our favorite places to visit.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t have some issues. Colorado has contributed more than its share of subjects for these pages, including how a big hoax contributed to its name, the weird conspiracy theories connected with the Denver Airport, and a guy who was arrested for assault with a deadly banana.

The research for yesterday’s article about the nuclear explosion deterrent contained in Colorado’s constitution yielded yet another interesting fact that earns it another mention here. The state’s highest law describes the wrong boundaries for the state.

As a general rule, a constitution is the supreme law for that entity. Another general rule is that the boundaries of a governmental entity are essential to its existence. What happens when the constitution describes incorrect boundaries?

Colorado’s state constitution (Article I) contains the following:

The boundaries of the state of Colorado shall be as follows: Commencing on the thirty-seventh parallel of north latitude, where the twenty-fifth meridian of longitude west from Washington crosses the same; thence north, on said meridian, to the forty-first parallel of north latitude; thence along said parallel, west, to the thirty-second meridian of longitude west from Washington; thence south, on said meridian, to the thirty-seventh parallel of north latitude; thence along said thirty-seventh parallel of north latitude to the place of beginning.

By this description, the thirty-seventh parallel is the boundary between Colorado and New Mexico. There’s only one problem: it isn’t.

In 1868, Congress tasked a surveyor to plot the boundary between the New Mexico and Colorado Territories. This line was used for maps from that date forward. In 1902, however, another survey disclosed that the line that had been recognized as the boundary actually ran north of the 37th parallel. If the recognized boundary between Colorado and New Mexico were to be moved to conform with the true 37th parallel, it would mean transferring a significant bit of real estate from Colorado to New Mexico.

The 37th Parallel as we recognize it today.

This revelation was just fine, as far as Colorado was concerned. New Mexico, however, did not take kindly to losing part of its territory, which included, “the greater portions of one town and two villages and five post offices.” The states fought it out, with the dispute ultimately going before the United States Supreme Court.

In 1925, the Court handed down its decision in New Mexico v. Colorado, (267 U.S. 30). It said that it wasn’t going to decide which of the two surveys accurately traced the 37th parallel. “It may well be that neither is entirely correct,” reasoned Justice Edward Terry Sanford. Instead, the Court concluded that the ultimate issue concerning the proper boundary between the state would be the one everyone had been using for over half a century.

Modern surveying equipment, aided by GPS technology, confirms that the state line does not adhere to the 37th parallel. It remains, however, in the constitution as the official description of the boundary.

We should also point out that New Mexico’s constitution (Article I) is incorrect for the same reason.


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