457 U.S. 273 (1982), 89, California ex rel. State Lands Commission v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 89, Orig.
Citation:457 U.S. 273, 102 S.Ct. 2432, 73 L.Ed.2d 1
Party Name:California ex rel. State Lands Commission v. United States
Case Date:June 18, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court

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457 U.S. 273 (1982)

102 S.Ct. 2432, 73 L.Ed.2d 1

California ex rel. State Lands Commission


United States

No. 89, Orig.

United States Supreme Court

June 18, 1982

Argued March 29, 1982



Held: The United States, not California, has title to oceanfront land created through accretion, resulting from construction of a jetty, to land owned by the United States on the coast of California. Pp. 278-288.

(a) A dispute over accretions to oceanfront land where title rests with or was derived from the Federal Government is to be determined by federal law. Hughes v. Washington, 389 U.S. 290; Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe, 442 U.S. 653. Under federal law, accretion, whatever its cause, belongs to the upland owner. Pp. 278-283.

(b) This is not a case where, as a matter of choice of law, state law should be borrowed and applied as the federal rule for deciding the substantive legal issue. Congress addressed the issue of accretions to federal land in the Submerged Lands Act, which vested title in the States to the lands underlying the territorial sea and confirmed the title of the States to the tidelands up to the line of mean high tide, but which, in § 5, withheld from the grant to the States all "accretions" to coastal lands acquired or reserved by the United States. In light of this latter provision, borrowing for federal law purposes a state rule that would divest federal ownership is foreclosed. Moreover, this is not a case in which federal common law must be created, since it has long been settled under federal law that the right to future accretions is an inherent and essential attribute of the littoral or riparian owner. Pp. 283-285.

(c) Only land underneath inland waters was included in the initial grant to the States under the equal-footing doctrine, United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19, and hence California cannot properly claim that title to the land in question here was vested in the State by that doctrine and confirmed by the Submerged Lands Act. The latter Act was a constitutional exercise of Congress' power to dispose of federal property and "did not impair the validity" of the United States v. California decision, United States v. Louisiana, 363 U.S. 1, 7, 20. To accept California's argument would require rejecting not only Hughes, supra, but also the established federal rule that accretions belong to the upland owner. Pp. 285-286.

(d) Section 2(a)(3) of the Submerged Lands Act, defining "lands beneath navigable waters" that fall within the Act's general grant to the

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States as including all "made" lands that formerly were lands beneath navigable water, does not apply to the gradual process by which sand accumulated along the shore, although caused by a jetty. To the extent that accretions are to be considered "made" land, they would fall within the reservation by the United States in the Act of "all lands filled in, built up, or otherwise reclaimed by the United States for its own use." In any event, § 5(a) of the Act expressly withholds from the grant to the States all "accretions" to lands reserved by the United States. Pp. 286-288.

[102 S.Ct. 2434] (e) Section 3(a) of the Submerged Lands Act, confirming the title of persons who, on June 5, 1950, were entitled to lands beneath navigable water "under the law of the respective states in which the land is located," means nothing more than that state law determines the proper beneficiary of the grant of land under the Act. Federal law determines the scope of the grant under the Act in the first instance. P. 288.

The United States' motion for judgment on the pleadings granted.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which STEVENS and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 288.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue before the Court is the ownership of oceanfront land created through accretion to land owned by the United States on the coast of California. The decision turns on whether federal or state law governs the issue.


From the time of California's admission to the Union in 1850, the United States owned the upland on the north side of the entrance channel to Humboldt Bay, Cal. In 1859 and 1871, the Secretary of the Interior ordered that certain of these lands, which fronted on the Pacific Ocean, the channel, and Humboldt Bay be reserved from public sale.1 Since that time, the land has been continuously possessed by the United States and used as a Coast Guard Reservation. The Pacific shoreline along the Coast Guard site remained subtantially unchanged until near the turn of the century, when the United States began construction of two jetties at the entrance to Humboldt Bay.2 The jetty constructed on the north side of the entrance resulted in fairly rapid accretion on the ocean side of the Coast Guard Reservation, so that formerly submerged lands became uplands.3 One hundred and eighty-four

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acres of upland were created by the seaward movement of the ordinary high-water mark. This land, which remains barren save for a watchtower, is the subject of the dispute in this case.

The controversy arose in 1977 when the Coast Guard applied for permission from California to use this land to construct the watchtower.4 At this time. it became evident that both California and [102 S.Ct. 2435] the United States asserted ownership of the land. The United States eventually built the watchtower without obtaining California's permission.5 Invoking our original jurisdiction, California then filed this suit to

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quiet title to the subject land.6 We granted leave for California to file a bill of complaint. 464 U.S. 809 (1981).

California alleges that upon its admission to the Union on September 9, 1860, Act of Sept. 9, 1860, 9 Stat. 452, and by confirmation in the Submerged Lands Act, 67 Stat. 29, 43 U.S.C. § 1301 et seq., California became vested with absolute title to the tidelands and the submerged lands upon which, after construction of the jetties, alluvion was deposited, resulting in formation of the subject land. Because the accretion formed on sovereign state land, California maintains that its law should govern ownership. Under California law, a distinction is drawn between accretive changes to a boundary caused by natural forces and boundary changes caused by the construction of artificial objects. For natural accretive changes, the upland boundary moves seaward as the alluvion is deposited, resulting in a benefit to the upland owner. Los Angeles v. Anderson, 206 Cal.662, 667, 276 P. 789, 791 (1929). When accretion is caused by construction of artificial works, however, the boundary does not move but becomes fixed at the ordinary high-water mark at the time the artificial influence is introduced. Carpenter v. Santa Monca, 63 Cal.App.2d 772, 794, 147 P.2d 964, 975 (1944). It is not disputed that the newly formed land in controversy was created by the construction of the jetty. Therefore, if state law governs, California would prevail.

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By its answer, and supporting memoranda, the United States contends that the formerly submerged lands were never owned by California before passage of the Submerged Lands Act in 1953, and that the disputed land was not granted to California by the Act. The United States also submits that the case is governed by federal, rather than state, law, and that, under long-established federal law, accretion, whatever its cause, belongs to the upland owner. Jones v. Johnston, 18 How. 150, 156 (1856); County of St. Clair v. Lovingston, 23 Wall. 46, 66 (1874); Jefferis v. East Omaha Land Co., 134 U.S. 178, 189-193 (1890); Beaver v. United States, 350 F.2d 4, 10-11 (CA9 1965).7 If such federal law controls, title to the deposited land vested in the United States as the accretions formed.

[102 S.Ct. 2436] Recognizing that the choice-of-law issue was clearly drawn, California moved for summary judgment and the United States moved for judgment on the pleadings. No essential facts being in dispute, a special master was not appointed, and the case was briefed and argued. We conclude that federal law governs the decision in this case, and that the land in dispute is owned by the United States.


In Borax Consolidated, Ltd. v. Los Angeles, 296 U.S. 10 (1935), the city filed suit to quiet its title to land claimed to be tideland and to belong to the city by virtue of a grant from the State. The defendant claimed by virtue of a patent from the United States issued after California entered the Union. In an opinion by Chief Justice Hughes, and with a single dissent,

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the Court held that, if the land in question was tideland, the title passed to California at the time of her admission to the Union in 1850; that it remained to be determined whether the land at issue was tideland; and that this issue was "necessarily a federal question" controlled by federal law. The Court said:

Petitioners claim under a federal patent which, according to the plat, purported to convey land bordering on the Pacific Ocean. There is no question that the United States was free to convey the upland, and the patent affords no ground for holding that it did not convey all the title that the United States had in the premises. The 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. Packer v. Bird, 137 U.S. 661, 669, 670; Brewer-Elliott Oil Co. v. United States, 260 U.S. 77, 87; United States v. Holt Bank, 270...

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