403 U.S. 9 (1971), 31, Utah v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 31, Orig.
Citation:403 U.S. 9, 91 S.Ct. 1775, 29 L.Ed.2d 279
Party Name:Utah v. United States
Case Date:June 07, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

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403 U.S. 9 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 1775, 29 L.Ed.2d 279



United States

No. 31, Orig.

United States Supreme Court

June 7, 1971

Argued April 26, 1971



In this suit involving conflicting claims between Utah and the United States to the shorelands around the Great Salt Lake, the Special Master's report, finding that, at the date of Utah's admission to the Union, the Lake was navigable, and that the lake bed passed to Utah at that time is supported by adequate evidence, and is approved by the Court. The parties are invited to address themselves to the decree submitted with the report with a view to agreeing, if possible, upon the issues that have now been settled. Pp. 9-13.

DOUGLAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all members joined except MARSHALL, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This suit was initiated by Utah to resolve a dispute between it and the United States as to shorelands around the Great Salt Lake. Utah's claim to the lands is premised on the navigability of the lake at the date of

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statehood, viz., January 4, 1896. If indeed the lake were navigable at that time, the claim of Utah would [91 S.Ct. 1776] override any claim of the United States, with the possible exception of a claim based on the doctrine of reliction, not now before us.

The operation of the "equal footing" principle has accorded newly admitted States the same property interests in submerged lands as was enjoyed by the Thirteen Original States as successors to the British Crown. Pollard's Lessee v. Hagan, 3 How. 212, 222-223, 228-230. That means that Utah's claim to the original bed of the Great Salt Lake -- whether now submerged or exposed -- ultimately rests on whether the lake was navigable (Martin v. Waddell, 16 Pet. 367, 410, 416-417) at the time of Utah's admission. Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. 1, 26-28. It was to that issue that we directed the Special Master, Hon. J. Cullen Ganey, to address himself. See Utah v. United States, 394 U.S. 89. In the present report, the Special Master found that, at the time in question, the Great Salt Lake was navigable. We approve that finding.

The question of navigability is a federal question. The Daniel Ball, 10 Wall. 557, 563. Moreover, the fact that the Great Salt Lake is not part of a navigable interstate or international commercial highway in no way interferes with the principle of public ownership of its bed. United States v. Utah, 283 U.S. 64, 75; United States v. Oregon, 295 U.S. 1, 14. The test of navigability of waters was stated in The Daniel Ball, supra, at 563:

Those rivers must be regarded as public navigable rivers in law which are navigable in fact. And they are navigable in fact when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce, over which trade and travel are or may be conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water. . . .

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While that statement was addressed to the navigability of "rivers," it applies to all watercourses. United States v. Oregon, supra, at 14.

The United States strongly contests the finding of the Special Master that the Great Salt Lake was navigable. Although the evidence is not extensive, we think it is sufficient to sustain the findings. There were, for example, nine boats used from time to time to haul cattle and sheep from the mainland to one of the islands or from one of the islands to the mainland. The hauling apparently was done by the owners of the livestock, not by a carrier for the purpose of making money. Hence, it is suggested that this was not the use of the lake as a navigable highway in the customary sense of the word. That is to say, the business of the boats was ranching, and not carrying water-borne freight. We think that is an irrelevant detail. The lake was used as a highway, and that is the gist of the federal test.

It is suggested that the carriage was also limited in the sense of serving only the few people who...

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