296 U.S. 10 (1935), 34, Borax Consolidated, Ltd. v. Los Angeles

Docket Nº:No. 34
Citation:296 U.S. 10, 56 S.Ct. 23, 80 L.Ed. 9
Party Name:Borax Consolidated, Ltd. v. Los Angeles
Case Date:November 11, 1935
Court:United States Supreme Court

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296 U.S. 10 (1935)

56 S.Ct. 23, 80 L.Ed. 9

Borax Consolidated, Ltd.


Los Angeles

No. 34

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 11, 1935

Argued October 23, 1935




1. Tidelands in California, which had not been granted by Mexico or subjected to trusts requiring a different disposition, passed to the State upon her admission to the Union. P. 15.

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2. The Federal Government had no right to convey tideland which had vested in the State by virtue of her admission. P. 16.

3. The words "public lands" are habitually used in our legislation to describe such as are subject to sale or other disposal under general laws. The term does not include tidelands. P. 17.

4. The authority given the Land Department over surveys of "public lands" of the United States, and its authority under the preemption law to patent lands "belonging to the United States," did not empower it to make a survey defining the boundary between an upland lot belonging to the United States, and tideland belonging to a State, which would be conclusive against the State or her grantee in a subsequent suit against one claiming the lot under a preemption patent. Knight v. United States Land Assn., 142 U.S. 160, distinguished. P. 16.

5. The question of the jurisdiction of the Land Department to act upon the subject matter -- a patent of lands -- is always open for judicial determination. P. 17.

6. Where the District Court, due to the error of deeming a United States survey and patent conclusive, failed to determine the boundary between tideland granted by a State and upland patented by the United States, in a suit to quiet title involving that question and others, the cause was properly remanded for a new trial. P. 21.

7. In a suit to quiet title brought by a party claiming tideland under grant from a State against a party claiming under a patent from the United States which purports to convey, according to a plat of survey, land bordering on the ocean, the question whether a part of the tideland is erroneously included by the survey and patent is necessarily a federal question, since it concerns the validity and effect of an act done by the United States and, involves the ascertainment of the essential basis of a right asserted under federal law. P. 22.

8. Rights and interests in the tideland, which is subject to the sovereignty of the State, are matters of local law. P. 22.

9. The tideland extends to the high water mark, which means, not a physical mark made upon the ground by the water, but the line of high water as determined by the course of the tides. P. 22.

10. At common law, ordinary high water mark is the boundary of tideland. P. 22.

11. The boundary is the mean high tide line, which is neither the spring tide nor the neap tide, but the mean of all the high tides. Pp. 22, 26.

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12. Inasmuch as the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey defines mean high water at any place as the average height of all the high waters at that place over a considerable period of time, and finds that, from theoretical considerations of an astronomical character, there should be a periodic variation in the rise of water above sea level having a period of 18.6 years, the Court approves a ruling that, in order to ascertain mean high tide line with requisite certainty in fixing the boundary of valuable tidelands, an average of 18.6 years should be determined as nearly as possible. P. 26.

74 F.2d 901 affirmed.

Certiorari, 295 U.S. 729, to review the reversal of a decree of the District Court, which dismissed upon the merits a bill by the City to quiet title to land claimed to be tideland.

HUGHES, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

The City of Los Angeles brought this suit to quiet title to land claimed to be tideland of Mormon Island situated in the inner bay of San Pedro now known as Los Angeles Harbor. The city asserted title under a legislative grant by the state. St. Cal.1911, p. 1256; 1917, p. 159.1

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Petitioners claimed under a preemption patent issued by the United States on December 30, 1881, to one William Banning. The District Court entered a decree, upon findings, dismissing the complaint upon the merits and adjudging that petitioner, Borax Consolidated, Limited, was the owner in fee simple and entitled to the possession of the property. 5 F.Supp. 281. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decree. 74 F.2d 901. Because of the importance of the questions presented, and of an asserted conflict with decisions of this Court, we granted certiorari, June 3, 1935.

In May, 1880, one W. H. Norway, a deputy surveyor, acting under a contract with the Surveyor General of the United States for California, made a survey of Mormon Island. The surveyor's field notes and the corresponding plat of the island were approved by the Surveyor General, and were returned to the Commissioner of the General Land Office. The latter, having found the survey to be correct, authorized the filing of the plat. The land which the patent to Banning purported to convey was described by reference to that plat as follows:

Lot numbered one, of section eight, in township five south, of range thirteen west of San Bernardino Meridian, in California, containing eighteen acres, and eighty-eight hundredths of an acre, according to the Official Plat of the Survey of the said Lands, returned to the General Land Office by the Surveyor General.

The District Court found that the boundaries of "lot one," as thus conveyed, were those shown by the plat

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and field notes of the survey; that all the lands described in the complaint were embraced within that lot, and that no portion of the lot was or had been tideland or situated below the line of mean high tide of the Pacific Ocean or of Los Angeles Harbor. The District Court held that the complaint was a collateral, and hence unwarranted, attack upon the survey, the plat, and the patent; that the action of the General Land Office involved determinations of questions of fact which were within its jurisdiction and were specially committed to it by law for decision, and that its determinations, including that of the correctness of the survey, were final, and were binding upon the State of California and the City of Los Angeles, as well as upon the United States.

The Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with this view as to the conclusiveness of the survey and the patent. The court held that the federal government had neither the power nor the intention to convey tideland to Banning, and that his rights were limited to the upland. The court also regarded the lines shown on the plat as being meander lines, and the boundary line of the land conveyed as the shore line of Mormon Island. The court declined to pass upon petitioners' claim of estoppel in pais and by judgment upon the ground that the question was not presented to or considered by the trial court, and was also of the opinion that the various questions raised as to the failure of the city to allege and prove the boundary line of the island were important only from the standpoint of the new trial which the court directed. 74 F.2d 901, p. 904. For the guidance of the trial court, the Court of Appeals laid down the following rule: The "mean high tide line" was to be taken as the boundary between the land conveyed and the tideland belonging to the California, and, in the interest of certainty, the court directed that "an average for 18.6

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years should be determined as near as possible by observation or calculation." 74 F.2d 901, pp. 906-907.

[56 S.Ct. 26] Petitioners contest these rulings of the Court of Appeals. With respect to the ascertainment of the shore line, they insist that the court erred in taking the "mean high tide line" and in rejecting "neap tides" as the criterion for ordinary high water mark.

1. The controversy is limited by settled principles governing the title to tidelands. The soils under tidewaters within the original states were reserved to them respectively, and the states since admitted to the Union have the same sovereignty and jurisdiction in relation to such lands within their borders as the original states possessed. Martin v. Waddell, 16 Pet. 367, 410; Pollard v. Hagan, 3 How. 212, 229-230; Goodtitle v. Kibbe, 9 How. 471, 478; Weber v. State Harbor Commissioners, 18 Wall. 57, 65-66; Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. 1, 15. This doctrine applies to tidelands in California. Weber v. State Harbor Commissioners, supra; Shively v. Bowlby, supra, pp. 29-30; United States v. Mission Rock Co., 189 U.S. 391, 404-405. Upon the acquisition of the territory from Mexico, the United States acquired the title to tidelands equally with the title to upland, but held the former only in trust for the future states that might be...

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