429 U.S. 363 (1977), 75-567, Oregon ex rel. State Land Bd. v. Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co.

Docket Nº:No. 75-567
Citation:429 U.S. 363, 97 S.Ct. 582, 50 L.Ed.2d 550
Party Name:Oregon ex rel. State Land Bd. v. Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co.
Case Date:January 12, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 363

429 U.S. 363 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 582, 50 L.Ed.2d 550

Oregon ex rel. State Land Bd.

v.

Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co.

No. 75-567

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 12, 1977

Argued October 4, 1976

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF OREGON

Syllabus

This litigation involves a dispute between the State of Oregon and an Oregon corporation over the ownership of two portions of land underlying the Willamette River, which is navigable but not an interstate boundary. The first portion has been within the riverbed since Oregon's admission into the Union, while the second portion is in an area that was not part of the riverbed at the time of Oregon's admission, but later became part of the riverbed because of changes in the river's course. In an ejectment action brought by Oregon [97 S.Ct. 584] against the corporation, which had been digging in the disputed part of the riverbed for 40 to 50 years without a lease from the State, the trial court awarded the first portion to the State on the ground that it had acquired sovereign title thereto upon admission into the Union and had not conveyed it, but with respect to the second portion found that avulsion, rather than accretion, had caused the changes in the river channel, and that therefore the title to the land remained in the corporation, its original owner before it became riverbed. The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed, taking the view that it was bound to apply federal common law to the resolution of the dispute by Bonelli Cattle Co. v. Arizona, 414 U.S. 313, and accordingly holding that the trial court's award of the second portion to the corporation was correct either under the theory of avulsion or under an exception to the accretion rule, and that preservation of the State's interest in navigation, fishing, and other related goals did not require that it acquire ownership of the new riverbed. The Oregon Supreme Court affirmed, with certain modifications dealing only with a factual question regarding the length of the second portion.

Held: The disputed ownership of the riverbed lands should be decided solely as a matter of Oregon law, and not by federal common law, since application of federal common law is required neither by the equal-footing doctrine nor by any other principle of federal law. If the lands at issue did pass under the equal-footing doctrine, state title is not subject to defeasance and state law governs subsequent

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dispositions. A similar result obtains in the case of riparian lands which did not pass under that doctrine; state law governs issues relating to such property, like other real property, unless some other principle of federal law requires a different result. Bonelli Cattle Co., supra, was wrong in treating the equal-footing doctrine as a source of federal common law after the doctrine had vested title to the riverbed in question in that case in the State of Arizona as of the time of its admission into the Union, and, accordingly, that case's application of federal common law to cases such as the instant one is overruled. Pp. 368-382.

272 Ore. 545, 536 P.2d 517; 272 Ore. 550, 538 P.2d 70, vacated and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 382. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 382.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This lawsuit began when the State of Oregon sued Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co., an Oregon corporation, to settle the ownership of certain lands underlying the Willamette River. The Willamette is a navigable river, and this land is located near Corvallis, Oregon. The river is not an interstate boundary.

Corvallis Sand had been digging in the disputed part of the riverbed for 40 to 50 years without a lease from the State. The State brought an ejectment action against Corvallis Sand, seeking to recover 11 separate parcels of riverbed, as well as damages for the use of the parcels. The State's complaint alleged that, by virtue of its sovereignty, it was the owner in fee simple of the disputed portions of the riverbed, and that it was entitled to immediate possession and damages. Corvallis Sand denied the State's ownership of the bed.

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Each party was partially successful in the Oregon courts,1 and we granted cross petitions for certiorari. 423 U.S. 1048. Those courts understandably felt that our recent decision in Bonelli Cattle Co. v. Arizona, 414 U.S. 313 (1973), required that they ascertain and apply principles of federal common law to the controversy. Twenty-six States have joined in three amicus briefs urging that we reconsider Bonelli, supra, because of what they assert is its significant departure from long-established precedent in this Court.

I

The nature of the litigation and the contentions of the parties may be briefly stated. Title to two distinct portions of land has been at issue throughout. The first of these portions has apparently been within the bed of the Willamette River since region's admission into the Union.

The other portion of the land underlies the river in an area known as Fischer Cut, which was not a part of the riverbed at the time Oregon was admitted to the Union. The trial court found that prior to a flood which occurred in November, 1909, the Willamette flowed around a peninsula-like formation known as Fischer Island, but that, by 1890, a clearly discernible overflow channel across the neck of the peninsula had developed. Before 1909 this channel carried

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the flow of the river only at its intermediate or high stages, and the main channel of the river continued to flow around Fischer Island. But in November, 1909, a major flood, in the words of the Oregon trial court, "suddenly and with great force and violence converted Fischer Cut into the main channel of the river."

The trial court, sitting without a jury, awarded all parcels in dispute, except for the Fischer Cut lands, to the State. T hat court found that the State had acquired sovereign title to those lands upon admission into the Union, and that it had not conveyed that title. The State was also awarded damages to recompense it for Corvallis Sand's use of the lands.

With respect to the Fischer Cut lands, the trial court found that avulsion, rather than accretion, had caused the change in the channel of the river, and therefore the title to the lands remained in Corvallis Sand, the original owner of the land before it became riverbed.

The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed. That court felt bound, under Bonelli, to apply federal common law to the resolution of this property dispute. In so doing, the court found that the trial court's award of Fischer Cut to Corvallis Sand was correct either under the theory of avulsion or under the so-called exception to the accretion rule, announced in Commissioners v. United States, 270 F. 110 (CA8 1920).2 The court, [97 S.Ct. 586] finding that preservation of the State's

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interest in navigation, fishing, and other related goals did not require that it acquire ownership of the new bed, rejected the argument that the State's sovereign title to a riverbed follows the course of the river as it moves.

II

In this Court, Oregon urges that we either modify Bonelli or expound "federal common law" in such a way that its title to all the land in question will be established. Corvallis Sand urges that we interpret "federal common law" in such a manner that it will prevail. Amici, as previously noted, urge that we reexamine Bonelli because, in their view, that case represented a sharp break with well established previous decisions of the Court.3

The dispute in Bonelli was over the ownership of the former bed of the Colorado River, a bed which the river had abandoned because of a federal rechanneling project. The Bonelli land was not part of the actual riverbed, however, either at the time Arizona was admitted to the Union or at the time of suit. Before Arizona had been admitted as a

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State, Bonelli's predecessor in title had received a United States patent to the land. Over a period of years, the Colorado River had migrated gradually eastward, eroding its east bank and depositing alluvion on its west bank in the process. In the course of this movement of the river, the Bonelli land, which had, at the time of patent, been on the east bank, was submerged, and, until the rechanneling project, most of it was under water. After the completion of the rechanneling project the bed of the Colorado River was substantially narrowed, and the Bonelli land reemerged.

The Supreme Court of Arizona held that Arizona owned the title to the beds of navigable rivers within its borders, and that Arizona therefore acquired title to the Bonelli land when it became part of the riverbed as a result of the eastward migration of the Colorado. That court went on to hold that, under state law, the reemergence of the land was an avulsive change, which did not divest the State of its title to the exposed land. This Court granted certiorari and reversed the Supreme Court of Arizona.

We phrased the critical inquiry in Bonelli in these words:

he issue before us is not what rights the State has accorded private [land] owners in lands which the State holds as sovereign, but, rather, how far the State's sovereign right extends under the equal-footing doctrine and the Submerged Lands Act -- whether the State retains title to the lands formerly beneath the stream of the Colorado River or whether that title is defeasible by the withdrawal of those waters.

414 U.S. at 319-320. (Emphasis added.)

We held that federal common law should govern in deciding whether a State retained title to lands which had reemerged from the bed of a navigable stream, relying in part on Borax, Ltd. v. Los...

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