389 U.S. 290 (1967), 15, Hughes v. Washington

Docket Nº:No. 15
Citation:389 U.S. 290, 88 S.Ct. 438, 19 L.Ed.2d 530
Party Name:Hughes v. Washington
Case Date:December 11, 1967
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 290

389 U.S. 290 (1967)

88 S.Ct. 438, 19 L.Ed.2d 530

Hughes

v.

Washington

No. 15

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 11, 1967

Argued November 6, 1967

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF WASHINGTON

Syllabus

Petitioner's predecessor in title received from the Federal Government a grant of ocean-front realty in what is now the State of Washington. The State asserts that, when it acquired statehood in 1889, its new constitution denied ocean-front property owners any further rights in accretion that might be formed between their property and the ocean. The trial court upheld petitioner's contention that the right to accretion remained subject to federal law, and that she was the owner of the accreted lands. The State Supreme Court reversed, holding that state law controlled, and that the State owned the lands.

Held: This question is governed by federal law, under which a grantee of land bounded by navigable water acquires a right to accretion formed along the shore, and the petitioner, who traces her title to a federal grant prior to statehood, is the owner of these accretions. Pp. 291-294.

67 Wash.2d 799, 410 P.2d 20, reversed and remanded.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question for decision is whether federal or state law controls the ownership of land, called accretion, gradually

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deposited by the ocean on adjoining upland property conveyed by the United States prior to statehood. The circumstances that give rise to the question are these. Prior to 1889, all land in what is now the State of Washington was owned by the United States, except land that had been conveyed to private parties. At that time, owners of property bordering the ocean, such as the predecessor in title of Mrs. Stella Hughes, the petitioner here, had under the common law a right to include within their lands any accretion gradually built up by the ocean.1 Washington became a State in 1889, and Article 17 of the State's new constitution, as interpreted by its Supreme Court, denied the owners of ocean-front property in the State any further rights in accretion that might in the future be formed between their property and the ocean. This is a suit brought by Mrs. Hughes, the successor in title to the original federal grantee, against the State of Washington as owner of the tidelands to determine whether the right to future accretions which existed under federal law in 1889 was abolished by that provision of the Washington Constitution. The trial court upheld Mrs. Hughes' contention that the right to accretions remained subject to federal law, and that she was the owner of the accreted lands. The State Supreme Court reversed, holding that state law controlled and that the State owned these lands. 67 Wash.2d 799, 410 P.2d 20 (1966). We granted certiorari. 385 U.S. 1000 (1967). We hold that this question is governed by federal, not state, law, and that, under federal law, Mrs. Hughes, who traces her title to a federal grant prior to statehood, is the owner of these accretions.

While the issue appears never to have been squarely presented to this Court before, we think the path to decision

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is indicated by our holding in Borax, Ltd. v. Los Angeles, 296 U.S. 10 (1935). [88 S.Ct. 440] In that case, we dealt with the rights of a California property owner who held under a federal patent, and in that instance, unlike the present case, the patent was issued after statehood. We held that

[t]he question as to the extent of this federal grant, that is, as to the limit of the land conveyed, or the boundary between the upland and the tideland, is necessarily a federal question. It is a question which concerns the validity and effect of an act done by the United States; it involves the ascertainment of the essential basis of a right asserted under federal law.

296 U.S. at 22. No subsequent case in this Court has cast doubt on the principle announced in Borax. See also United States v. Oregon, 295 U.S. 1, 27-28 (1935). The State argues, and the court below held, however, that the Borax case...

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