295 U.S. 1 (1935), 13, United States v. Oregon

Docket Nº:No. 13, original
Citation:295 U.S. 1, 55 S.Ct. 610, 79 L.Ed. 1267
Party Name:United States v. Oregon
Case Date:April 01, 1935
Court:United States Supreme Court

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295 U.S. 1 (1935)

55 S.Ct. 610, 79 L.Ed. 1267

United States



No. 13, original

United States Supreme Court

April 1, 1935

Argued March 12, 1935

1. An Executive Order setting aside a nonnavigable lake on the public domain as a bird reservation was within the authority of the President, though made before the effective date of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of July 3, 1918. P. 10.

2. Title to land within the meander line of a nonnavigable lake on the public domain did not pass to the State as an incident to ownership of abutting uplands granted by the United States as school land, where, prior to approval of the survey of the uplands, the lake had been set aside by Executive Order as a federal reservation. P. 9.

3. Acceptance by a other lands in lieu of lands within the meander line of a nonnavigable lake adjacent to uplands granted it as school lands held a practical construction of the boundary and a relinquishment of a claim to title within the meander. P. 10.

4. In a suit by the United States against a State to quiet title to the bed of a lake on which the State owns part of the uplands bordering the meander line, the owners of other parts of the uplands in like situation are not necessary parties, and their rights will not be affected by the decree. P. 12.

5. Upon the admission of a State to the Union, the title of the United States to lands underlying navigable waters within the State passes to it, as incident to the transfer to the local sovereignty, and is subject only to the paramount power of the United States to control such waters for purposes of navigation in interstate and foreign commerce. P. 14.

6. But if the waters are not navigable in fact, the title of the United States to land underlying them remains unaffected by the creation of the new State. P. 14.

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7. In determining whether title to lands underlying waters passed to the State in virtue of its admission to statehood, the question whether the waters were navigable or nonnavigable is a federal question, which is to be determined according to the laws and usages applied by the federal courts, even though the waters are not capable of use for navigation in interstate or foreign commerce. P. 14.

8. The test of navigability is whether the body of water in question, in its natural and ordinary condition, is susceptible of use for navigation in the customary modes of trade and travel over water, and has capacity for general and common usefulness for trade and commerce. P. 15.

Upon the evidence in this case, Malheur, Mud, and Harney Lakes, and connecting waters in Oregon, are adjudged to have been nonnavigable at the time of admission of the State and since. Pp. 8, 16 et seq.

9. Previous recognition of the nonnavigable character of a lake on the public domain, by the Secretary of the Interior and by the state courts, is significant in determining the question. P. 23.

10. A bill to quiet title may not be defeated by showing that the plaintiff's interest, otherwise sufficient to support the bill, may be subject to possibly superior rights in third persons not parties to the suit. It is enough that the interest asserted by the plaintiff in possession of land is superior to that of those who are parties defendant. P. 24.

11. A possession under color and claim of title which is sufficient to preclude the claimant from trying the title in ejectment is an adequate basis for a suit in equity to remove clouds created by assertions of an inferior title by another. P. 25.

12. The United States has complete control, free from restriction or limitation by the States, over the disposition of title to its lands; the construction of its grants is a federal question, and involves the consideration of state questions only insofar as it may be determined as a matter of federal law that the United States had impliedly adopted and assented to a state rule of construction as applicable to its conveyance. P. 27.

13. A state statute declaring that lakes within the State which have been meandered by the United States surveys are navigable public waters of the State, and that the title to their beds is in the State, can have no effect upon title retained by the United States to the

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bed of a nonnavigable lake, nor upon the interest in the bed that may have passed to others as incidents of grants of the United States conveying abutting uplands. Pp. 26, 28.

Decree for the plaintiff.

Original suit brought by the United States against the State of Oregon to quiet title to unsurveyed land within a meander line purporting to mark the boundaries of lands underlying three lakes, and waters connecting them, in that State. For decree, see post, p. 701.

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STONE, J., lead opinion

[55 S.Ct. 612] MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an original suit brought by the United States against the State of Oregon to quiet title to 81,786 acres of unsurveyed lands in Harney county, Oregon. The lands lie within a meander line 105.36 miles in length. The line was surveyed principally by John H. Neal in 1895-1896, and approved by the Commissioner of the Land Office in 1897; the remainder has since been surveyed, and has been approved by the Commissioner. The meander line purports to mark the boundaries of lands underlying five bodies of water at the ordinary or mean high water mark. They are Lake Malheur (47,670 acres), Mud Lake (1,466 acres), Harney Lake (29,562 acres), the Narrows (296 acres, connecting Lake Malheur with Mud Lake), and the Sand Reef (2,792 acres, connecting Mud Lake with Harney Lake). The five bodies of water extend from the extreme end of Lake Malheur on the east to the westerly side of Harney Lake, a distance of approximately thirty miles. Lake Malheur is shown by maps in evidence to be 16.66 miles in length and more than 6 miles in width. Mud Lake is a small body of water, a little over a mile in diameter. Harney Lake is similarly shown to be 8.57 miles long and approximately 5 miles wide.

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The principal source of inflow to Lake Malheur at all the times material to the present controversy, has been from the Silvies River on the north and the Donner und Blitzen River on the south. The source of inflow to Harney Lake is from Lake Malheur through the Narrows, thence through Mud Lake and the Sand Reef. Some water also flows into Harney Lake on the north from Silver Creek, a mountain stream, which is dry for part of the year. Harney Lake has no outlet.

By Executive Order of August 18, 1908, all of the land claimed by the United States in this suit was set apart as a bird reserve, known as the Lake Malheur Reservation, and has since been administered as such by the United States Bureau of Biological Survey, under the direction of the Department of Agriculture.

The state of Oregon was admitted to the Union on February 14, 1859. At that date. the area within the meander line was a part of the public domain of the United States. No part of it has ever been disposed of, in terms, by any grant of the United States. Decision of the principal issues raised by the pleadings and proof turns on the question whether the area involved underlay navigable waters at the time of the admission of Oregon to statehood. If the waters were navigable in fact, title passed to the State upon her admission to the Union. Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. 1, 26-31; Scott v. Lattig, 227 U.S. 229, 242-243; Oklahoma v. Texas, 258 U.S. 574, 583, 591. United States v. Utah, 283 U.S. 64, 75. If the waters were nonnavigable, our decision must then turn on the question whether the title of the United States to the lands in question, or part of them, has passed to the State. This is asserted to be a consequence of the United States' having parted with title to the uplands bordering on the meander line by patents to private grantees and by statutory grant to the State of school and indemnity lands in the act admitting Oregon to statehood. See United States v. Morrison, 240 U.S. 192. The state contends

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that the common law rule, applied by this Court in Hardin v. Jordan, 140 U.S. 371, that a conveyance of land bounded upon the waters of a nonnavigable lake carries by implications to the center of the lake, does not obtain in Oregon, especially in the case of lakes of the size of Malheur and Harney. It insists that grants by the United States of lands within the State, like those of a private individual, are to be construed in accordance with state law, and that, by the common and statute law of Oregon, a conveyance of the uplands bordering on a nonnavigable lake, by the owner of the lake bed to any grantee, vests title to the bed in the State. Other questions of minor importance will be considered as it is found necessary to deal with them in the course of the opinion.

The issues raised by the pleadings were referred to a special master, with the powers of a master in chancery, to take the evidence and report his findings of fact and conclusions of law and to make recommendations to this Court for a decree. After hearing and considering voluminous testimony, he has rendered his report, with findings of fact and conclusions of law and a proposed form of decree. He found that none of the waters within the meander line was navigable in fact, and concluded that the State of Oregon had acquired no right, title, or interest in any part of the land lying within the meander [55 S.Ct. 613] line, save such as is incidental to the ownership of land acquired by it from patentees of the United States, fronting a distance of 159.67 chains on the meander line on either side of the westerly portion of the Narrows, designated on maps in evidence as Subdivision B (between the bridge and Mud Lake), and such as is incidental to its...

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