United States v. State of California, 5

Decision Date17 May 1965
Docket NumberNo. 5,O,5
Citation14 L.Ed.2d 296,381 U.S. 139,85 S.Ct. 1401
PartiesThe UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff, v. The STATE OF CALIFORNIA. riginal
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Archibald Cox, Sol. Gen., for plaintiff.

Richard H. Keatinge, San Marino, Cal., for defendant.

George N. Hayes, Anchorage, Alaska, for State of Alaska, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The present case requires us to determine the extent of submerged lands granted to the State of California by the Submerged Lands Act of 1953,1 and in particular to declare whether specified bodies of water on the California coast are 'inland waters' within the meaning of that Act. A substantial amount of background is necessary to place the issues in perspective.



This is a suit begun in 1945, brought by the United States against California to determine dominion over the submerged lands and mineral rights under the three-mile belt of sea off the coast of California. In 1947 the Court decreed:

'The United States of America is now, and has been at all times pertinent hereto, possessed of paramount rights in, and full dominion and power over, the lands, minerals and other things underlying the Pacific Ocean lying seaward of the ordinary low-water mark on the coast of California, and outside of the inland waters, extending seaward three nautical miles * * *. The State of California has no title thereto or property interest therein.' United States v. California, 332 U.S. 804, 805, 68 S.Ct. 20, 21, 92 L.Ed. 382, Order and Decree.

After the entry of this decree, the United States asked that the lands awarded to it be defined in greater detail in certain areas where there was substantial oil well activity, and which California asserted lay within inland waters. The Court appointed a Special Master,2 and directed him to consider seven specified segments of the

California coast3 to determine the line of ordinary low water and the outer limit of inland waters. These segments included various bays, and, as the problem evolved, the so-called 'overall unit area' consisting of the waters inside a line encompassing the islands off the shore of southern California, some as far as 50 miles out.4 The Special Master's Report, generally favoring the position of the United States, was filed with this Court in November 1952, 344 U.S. 872, 73 S.Ct. 163, 97 L.Ed. 676. He adopted as his criteria for defining inland waters those applied by the United States

in the conduct of its foreign affairs as of the date of the California decree, October 27, 1947—in particular, a rule that only a bay having a closing line across its mouth no more than 10 miles in length and enclosing a sufficient water area to satisfy the so-called Boggs formula5 would be inland water, with the qualification that a bay which had been historically considered inland water would so continue.6 Both parties noted their exceptions to the

Report, but before any further action was taken, Congress enacted the Submerged Lands Act.

The Submerged Lands Act7 grants to the State title to and ownership of the lands beneath navigable waters

within the boundaries of the respective States.' § 3(a). 'Boundaries' includes the seaward boundaries of a State 'as they existed at the time such State became a member of the Union, or as heretofore approved by the Congress,' but subject to the limitation that

'in no event shall the term 'boundaries' * * * be interpreted as extending from the coast line more than three geographical miles into the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean, or more than three marine leagues into the Gulf of Mexico.' § 2(b).

'Coast line' is then defined as the composite 'line of ordinary low water along that portion of the coast which is in direct contact with the open sea and the line marking the seaward limit of inland waters.' § 2(c). For States

having no previously approved seaward boundaries the Act provides that '(a)ny State admitted subsequent to the formation of the Union which has not already done so may extend its seaward boundaries to a line three geographical miles distant from its coast line * * *.' § 4.

Thus the Act effectively grants each State on the Pacific coast all submerged lands shoreward of a line three geographical miles8 from its 'coast line', derivatively defined in terms of 'the seaward limit of inland waters.' 'Inland waters' is not defined by the Act.

In a later measure related to the Submerged Lands Act, Congress declared that the United States owned all submerged land in the continental shelf seaward of the lands granted to the States. Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, 67 Stat. 462, 43 U.S.C. § 1331 et seq.

The passage of the Submerged Lands Act marked the beginning of a long halt in the proceedings in this case. Depth of California's coastal waters increases very rapidly, and as of May 22, 1953, the date of enactment, it was impractical to drill for oil except close to the shore. By granting to California the mineral rights in the three-mile belt, the Act vested in California all the interests that were then thought to be important, and no further action was taken on the Special Master's Report. That Report was neither adopted, modified, nor rejected

by this Court, but was simply allowed to lie dormant. By 1963, however, drilling techniques had improved sufficiently to revitalize the importance of the demarcation line between state and federal submerged lands. The United States filed an amended complaint reviving the Special Master's Report and redescribing the issues as modified by the Submerged Lands Act; both the United States and California filed new exceptions to the Report, and the case is now ready for decision.

The basic contention of the United States is that the Act simply moved the line of demarcation out three miles from the line established by the California decree. Therefore, contends the United States, the Special Master's Report on the line of ordinary low water and the outer limit of inland waters as used in the California decree is just as relevant now as it was before Congress acted, and, with slight modifications, the line drawn by the Special Master should be taken as the 'coast line' for purposes of the Submerged Lands Act. California asserts that whereas the Special Master determined inland waters to be those which the United States would have claimed as such for purposes of international relations, the Submerged Lands Act used the term in an entirely different sense to mean those waters which the States historically considered to be inland—in California's case, those waters which the State considered to be inland at the time it entered the Union. Therefore, according to California, the line drawn in the Special Master's Report was determined under standards wholly foreign to the Submerged Lands Act.

The focal point of this case is the interpretation to be placed on 'inland waters' as used in the Act. Since the Act does not define the term, we look to the legislative history.



Two changes relevant for our purposes were made in the bill which became the Submerged Lands Act between the time it was sent to the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and the time of its passage.

(1) As first written, the bill defined inland waters to include

'all estuaries, ports, harbors, bays, channels, straits, historic bays, and sounds, and all other bodies of water which join the open sea.'

This definition was removed by the Senate Committee.9

(2) The bill originally contained no limitation on the extent of historic boundaries that could be claimed. The provision limiting the extent of boundary claims to no more than three geographical miles from the coastline on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and three marine leagues on the Gulf of Mexico was added to the bill on the floor of the Senate in the late stages of the debates.10

Removal of the definition for inland waters and the addition of the three-mile limitation in the Pacific, when taken together, unmistakably show that California cannot prevail in its cntention that 'as used in the Act, Congress intended inland waters to identify those areas which the states always thought were inland waters.'11 By deleting the original definition of 'inland waters'

Congress made plain its intent to leave the meaning of the term to be elaborated by the courts, independently of the Submerged Lands Act.

In response to substantial objections made in the hearings to the original bill's broad definition of inland waters on grounds that it would prejudice and limit the position which the United States could take in its future conduct of foreign affairs,12 Senator Cordon, the manager of the bill, recommended and obtained elimination of the definition. The Committee Report which he authored explained:

'The words 'which include all estuaries, ports, harbors, bays, channels, straits, historic bays, and sounds, and all other bodies of water which join the open sea' have been deleted from the reported bill because of the committee's belief that the question of what constitutes inland waters should be left where Congress finds it. The committee is convinced that the definition neither adds nor takes away anything a State may have now in the way of a coast and the lands underneath waters behind it.' S.Rep.No.133, 83d Cong., 1st Sess., 18, U.S.Code Cong. and Adm.News 1953, p. 1493.13

The committee's understanding that the measure 'neither adds nor takes away anything a State may have now in the way of a coast and the lands underneath waters behind it,' appears to be an acceptance of 'inland waters' as used in the California and prior Court opinions, whatever that usage might have been. Various different concepts of inland waters were asserted during the Senate...

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