United States v. State of California

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation91 L.Ed. 1889,1947 AMC 1579,332 U.S. 19,67 S.Ct. 1658
Docket NumberNo. 12,O,12
Decision Date23 June 1947

332 U.S. 19
67 S.Ct. 1658
91 L.Ed. 1889



No. 12, Original.
Argued March 13, 14, 1947.
Decided June 23, 1947.

Rehearing Denied Oct. 13, 1947. See 68 S.Ct. 37.

Order and Decree Oct. 27, 1947. See 68 S.Ct. 20.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 19-21 intentionally omitted]

Page 21

Tom C. Clark, Atty. Gen., and Arnold Raum, of Washington, D.C., for complainant.

Fred H. Howser, of San Francisco, Cal., and William W. Clary, of Los Angeles, Cal., for defendant.

Leander I. Shelley, of New York City, for American Association of Port Authorities, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Price Daniel, of Austin, Tex., for National Association of Attorneys General, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Page 22

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 f, or poss essed 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 pertroleum, 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 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 proceedig.

Fir st. 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 diffeence 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 confliciting 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. State of West Virginia, 295 U.S. 463, 55 S.Ct. 789, 79 L.Ed. 1546, 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. State of West Virginia, supra, 295 U.S. at page 471, 55 S.Ct. at page 792, 79 L.Ed. 1546. 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 conflicting claims of alleged invasions of interests in property and on conflicting claims of governmental powers to authorize its use. United States v. State of Texas, 143 U.S. 621, 646, 648, 12 S.Ct. 488, 494, 495, 36 L.Ed. 285; United States v. State of Minnesota, 270 U.S. 181, 194, 46 S.Ct. 298, 301, 70 L.Ed. 539; State of Nebraska v. State of Wyoming, 325 U.S. 589, 608, 65 S.Ct. 1332, 1346, 89 L.Ed. 1815.

Nor can we sustain that phase of the state's contention as to the absence of a case or controversy resting on the argument that it is impossible to identify the subject matter of the suit so as to render a proper decree. The land claimed by the Government, it is said, has not been sufficiently described in the complaint since the only shoreward boundary of some segments of the marginal belt is the line between that belt and the State's inland waters. And the Government includes in the term 'in-

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land waters' ports, harbors, bays, rivers, and lakes. Pointing out the numerous difficulties in fixing the point where these inland waters end and the marginal sea begins, the state argues that the pleadings are therefore wholly devoid of a basis for a definite decree, the kind of decree essential to disposition of a case like this. Therefore, California concludes, all that is prayed for is an abstract declaration of rights concerning an unidentified three-mile belt, which could only be used as a basis for subsequent actions in which specific relief could be granted as to particular localities.

We may assume that location of the exact coastal line will involve many complexities and difficulties. But that does not make this any the less a justiciable controversy. Certainly demarcation of the boundary is not an impossibility. Despite difficulties this Court has previously adjudicated controversies concerning submerged land boundaries. See State of New Jersey v. State of Delaware, 291 U.S. 361, 54 S.Ct. 407, 78 L.Ed. 847, Id., 295 U.S. 694, 55 S.Ct. 907, 79 L.Ed. 1659; Borax Consolidated, Ltd. v. City of Los Angeles, 296 U.S. 10, 21—27, 56 S.Ct. 23, 28—31, 80 L.Ed. 9; State of Oklahoma v. State of Texas, 256 U.S. 70, 41 S.Ct. 420, 6 5 L.Ed. 831, Id., 256 U.S. 602, 41 S.Ct. 539, 65 L.Ed. 1115. And there is no reason why, after determining in general who owns the three-mile belt here involved, the Court might not later, if necessary, have more detailed hearings in order to determine with greater definiteness particular segments of the boundary. State of Oklahoma v. State of Texas, 258 U.S. 574, 582, 42 S.Ct. 406, 410, 66 L.Ed. 771. Such practice is commonplace in actions similar to this which are in the nature of equitable proceedings. See e.g. State of Oklahoma v. State of Texas, 256 U.S. at pages 608, 609, 41 S.Ct. at page 540, 541, 65 L.Ed. 1115, Id., 260 U.S. 606, 625, 43 S.Ct. 221, 222, 67 L.Ed. 428; Id., 261 U.S. 340, 43 S.Ct. 376, 67 L.Ed. 687. California's contention concerning the indefinitieness of the claim presents no insuperable obstacle to the exercise of the highly important jurisdiction conferred on us by Article III of the Constitution.

Second. It is contended that we should dismiss this action on the ground that the Attorney General has not been granted power either to file or to maintain it. It is

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not denied that Congress has given a very broad authority to the Attorney General to institute and conduct litigation in order to establish and safeguard government rights and properties.3 The argument is that Congress has for a long period of years acted in such a way as to manifest a clear policy to the effect that the states, not the Federal Government, have legal title to the land under the three-mile belt. Although Congress has not expressly declared such a policy, we are asked to imply it from certain conduct of Congress and other governmental agencies charged with...

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