332 U.S. 19 (1947), 12, United States v. California

Docket Nº:No. 12, Original
Citation:332 U.S. 19, 67 S.Ct. 1658, 91 L.Ed. 1889
Party Name:United States v. California
Case Date:June 23, 1947
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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332 U.S. 19 (1947)

67 S.Ct. 1658, 91 L.Ed. 1889

United States

v.

California

No. 12, Original

United States Supreme Court

June 23, 1947

Argued March 13-14, 1947

Syllabus

1. The complaint filed in this Court by the United States against the State of California to determine which government owns, or has paramount rights in and power over, the submerged land off the coast of California between the low water mark and the three-mile limit and has a superior right to take or authorize the taking of the vast quantities of oil and gas underneath that land (much of which has already been, and more of which is about to be, taken by or under authority of the State) presents a case or controversy under Article III, § 2, of the Constitution. Pp. 24-25.

2. The fact that the coastal line is indefinite, and that its exact location will involve many complexities and difficulties presents no insuperable obstacle to the exercise of the highly important jurisdiction conferred on this Court by Article III, § 2, of the Constitution. Pp. 25-26.

3. Congress has neither explicitly nor by implication stripped the Attorney General of the power to invoke the jurisdiction of this Court in this federal-state controversy, pursuant to his broad authority under 5 U.S.C. §§ 291, 309, to protect the Government's interests through the courts. Pp. 26-29.

4. California is not the owner of the three-mile marginal belt along its coast, and the Federal Government, rather than the State, has paramount rights in and power over that belt, an incident to which is full dominion over the resources of the soil under that water area, including oil. Pp. 29-39.

(a) There is no substantial support in history for the view that the thirteen original colonies separately acquired ownership of the three-mile belt beyond the low water mark or the soil under it, even if they did acquire elements of the sovereignty of the English Crown by their revolution against it. Pollard's Lessee v. Hagan, 3 How. 212, distinguished. Pp. 29-33.

(b) Acquisition of the three-mile belt has been accomplished by the National Government, and protection and control of it has been and is a function of national external sovereignty. Pp. 33-35.

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(c) The assertion by the political agencies of this Nation of broad dominion and control over the three-mile marginal belt is binding upon this Court. Pp. 33-34.

(d) The fact that the State has been authorized to exercise local police power functions in the part of the marginal belt within its declared boundaries does not detract from the Federal Government's paramount rights in and power over this area. P. 36.

(e) Manchester v. Massachusetts, 139 U.S. 240; Louisiana v. Mississippi, 202 U.S. 1; The Abby Dodge, 223 U.S. 166, distinguished. Pp. 36-38.

5. The Federal Government's paramount rights in the three-mile belt have not been lost by reason of the conduct of its agents, nor by this conduct is the Government barred from enforcing its rights by reason of principles similar to laches, estoppel or adverse possession. Pp. 39-40.

(a) The Government, which holds its interests here, as elsewhere, in trust for all the people, is not to be deprived of those interests by the ordinary court rules designed particularly for private disputes over individually owned pieces of property. P. 40.

(b) Officers of the Government who have no authority at all to dispose of Government property cannot, by their conduct, cause the Government to lose its valuable rights by their acquiescence, laches, or failure to act. P. 40.

6. The great national question whether the State or the Nation has paramount rights in and power over the three-mile belt is not dependent upon what expenses may have been incurred by public or private agencies upon mistaken assumptions. P. 40.

7. It is not to be assumed that Congress, which has constitutional control over Government property, will so execute its powers as to bring about injustices to states, their subdivisions, or persons acting pursuant to their permission. P. 40.

8. The United States is entitled to a decree declaring its rights in the area in question as against California and enjoining California and all persons claiming under it from continuing to trespass upon the area in violation of the rights of the United States. Pp. 22-23, 41.

The case is stated in the first paragraph of the opinion, and the conclusion that the United States is entitled to the relief prayed for is reported at page 41.

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BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The United States, by its Attorney General and Solicitor General, brought this suit against the State of California invoking our original jurisdiction under Article III, § 2, of the Constitution, which provides that, "In all Cases . . . in which a State shall be Party, the Supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction." The complaint alleges that the United States

is the owner in fee simple of, or possessed of paramount rights in and powers over, the lands, minerals and other things of value underlying the Pacific Ocean, lying seaward of the ordinary low water mark on the coast of California and outside of the inland waters of the State, extending seaward three nautical miles and bounded on the north and south, respectively, by the

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northern and southern boundaries of the State of California.

It is further alleged that California, acting pursuant to state statutes but without authority from the United States, has negotiated and executed numerous leases with persons and corporations purporting to authorize them to enter upon the described ocean area to take petroleum, gas, and other mineral deposits, and that the lessees have done so, paying to California large sums of money in rents and royalties for the petroleum products taken. The prayer is for a decree declaring the rights of the United States in the area as against California and enjoining California and all persons claiming under it from continuing to trespass upon the area in violation of the rights of the United States.

California has filed an answer to the complaint. It admits that persons holding leases from California, or those claiming under it, have been extracting petroleum products from the land under the three-mile ocean belt immediately adjacent to California. The basis of California's asserted ownership is that a belt extending three English miles from low water mark lies within the original boundaries of the state, Cal.Const. 1849, Art. XII;1 that the original thirteen states acquired from [67 S.Ct. 1661] the Crown of England title to all lands within their boundaries under navigable waters, including a three-mile belt in adjacent seas; and that, since California was admitted as a state on an "equal footing" with the original states, California at that time became vested with title to all such lands. The answer further sets up several "affirmative" defenses. Among these are that California should be adjudged to

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have title under a doctrine of prescription; because of an alleged long existing Congressional policy of acquiescence in California's asserted ownership; because of estoppel or laches; and, finally, by application of the rule of res judicata.2

After California's answer was filed, the United States moved for judgment as prayed for in the complaint on the ground that the purported defenses were not sufficient in law. The legal issues thus raised have been exhaustively presented by counsel for the parties, both by brief and oral argument. Neither has suggested any necessity for the introduction of evidence, and we perceive no such necessity at this stage of the case. It is now ripe for determination of the basic legal issues presented by the motion. But before reaching the merits of these issues, we must first consider questions raised in California's brief and oral argument concerning the Government's right to an adjudication of its claim in this proceeding.

First. It is contended that the pleadings present no case or controversy under Article III, § 2, of the Constitution. The contention rests in the first place on an argument that there is no case or controversy in a legal sense, but only a difference of opinion between federal and state officials. It is true that there is a difference of opinion between federal and state officers. But there is far more than that. The point of difference is as to who owns, or has paramount rights in and power over, several thousand square miles of

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land under the ocean off the coast of California. The difference involves the conflicting claims of federal and state officials as to which government, state or federal, has a superior right to take or authorize the taking of the vast quantities of oil and gas underneath that land, much of which has already been, and more of which is about to be, taken by or under authority of the state. Such concrete conflicts as these constitute a controversy in the classic legal sense, and are the very kind of differences which can only be settled by agreement, arbitration, force, or judicial action. The case principally relied upon by California, United States v. West Virginia, 295 U.S. 463, does not support its contention. For here, there is a claim by the United States, admitted by California, that California has invaded the title or paramount right asserted by the United States to a large area of land and that California has converted to its own use oil which was extracted from that land. Cf. United States v. West Virginia, supra, 471. This alone would sufficiently establish the kind of concrete, actual conflict of which we have jurisdiction under Article III. The justiciability of this controversy rests therefore on...

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