California State Lands Comm'n v. United States
457 U.S. 273 (1982)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

California State Lands Comm'n v. United States, 457 U.S. 273 (1982)

California ex rel. State Lands Commission v. United States

No. 89, Orig.

Argued March 29, 1982

Decided June 18, 1982

457 U.S. 273

ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR JUDGMENT

Syllabus

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. 457 U. S. 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. 457 U. S. 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. 457 U. S. 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, 363 U. S. 7, 363 U. S. 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. 457 U. S. 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

Page 457 U. S. 274

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. 457 U. S. 286-288.

(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. 457 U. S. 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. 457 U. S. 288.

Page 457 U. S. 275

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.

I

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. [Footnote 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. [Footnote 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. [Footnote 3] One hundred and eighty-four

Page 457 U. S. 276

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. [Footnote 4] At this time. it became evident that both California and the United States asserted ownership of the land. The United States eventually built the watchtower without obtaining California's permission. [Footnote 5] Invoking our original jurisdiction, California then filed this suit to

Page 457 U. S. 277

quiet title to the subject land. [Footnote 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.

Page 457 U. S. 278

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, 59 U. S. 156 (1856); County of St. Clair v. Lovingston, 23 Wall. 46, 90 U. S. 66 (1874); Jefferis v. East Omaha Land Co.,134 U. S. 178, 134 U. S. 189-193 (1890); Beaver v. United States, 350 F.2d 4, 10-11 (CA9 1965). [Footnote 7] If such federal law controls, title to the deposited land vested in the United States as the accretions formed.

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.

II

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,

Page 457 U. S. 279

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, 137 U. S. 669, 137 U. S. 670; Brewer-Elliott Oil Co. v. United States,260 U. S. 77, 260 U. S. 87; United States v. Holt Bank,270 U. S. 49, 270 U. S. 55, 270 U. S. 56; United States v. Utah,283 U. S. 64, 283 U. S. 75. Rights and interests in the tideland, which is subject to the sovereignty of the State, are matters of local law. Barney v. Keokuk,94 U. S. 324, 94 U. S. 338; Shively v. Bowlby, [152 U.S. 1,] 152 U. S. 40; Hardin v. Jordan,140 U. S. 371, 140 U. S. 382; Port of Seattle v. Oregon & Washington R. Co.,255 U. S. 56, 255 U. S. 63."

Borax Consolidated, Ltd. v. Los Angeles, supra, at 296 U. S. 22. The Court went on to hold that tidelands extend to the mean high-water line, which the Court then defined as a matter of federal law.

There was no question of accretions to the shoreline of the property involved in Borax. But some 30 years later, Mrs. Stella Hughes, the successor in interest to the owner of oceanfront property patented by the United States prior to

Page 457 U. S. 280

the entry of the State of Washington into the Union, sued the State seeking to quiet her title to accretions that had become attached to her land and that had caused a seaward movement of the shoreline. Under Washington law, the accretions belonged to the State, the owner of the tidelands, and Mrs. Hughes would no longer own property fronting on the ocean. Under federal law, accretions are the property of the upland owner. The trial court found that federal law applied. The Washington Supreme Court reversed, holding that Washington law applied and that the State owned any land that accreted after statehood. Hughes v. State, 67 Wash.2d. 799, 410 P.2d 20 (1966).

We, in turn, reversed, reaffirming the decision in Borax that federal law determined the boundary between state-owned tidelands and property granted under a federal patent and holding that the same law applied to determine the boundary between state-owned tidelands and oceanfront property where accretions had extended the shoreline seaward. Hughes v. Washington,389 U. S. 290 (1967). [Footnote 8] The justification for employing federal law was the special nature of the coastal boundary question:

"The rule deals with waters that lap both the lands of the State and the boundaries of the intenational sea. This relationship, at this particular point of the marginal sea, is too close to the vital interest of the Nation in its own boundaries to allow it to be governed by any law but the 'supreme Law of the Land.'"

Id. at 389 U. S. 293. We went on to decide that, under federal law, the federal grantee of the uplands had the right to the accumulated accretions.

Except for the fact that, in the present case, the upland to which the accretions attached has always been owned by the United States, this case and Hughes are similarly situated.

Page 457 U. S. 281

Unless Hughes is to be overruled, judgment must be entered for the United States.

California urges that, for all intents and purposes, Hughes has already been eviscerated by Oregon ex rel. State Land Board v. Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co.,429 U. S. 363 (1977). Corvallis involved a dispute between the State of Oregon and an Oregon corporation over the ownership of land that became part of a riverbed because of avulsive changes in the river's course. The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's award of the land to the corporation because that was the result dictated by federal common law, which, under Bonelli Cattle Co. v. Arizona,414 U. S. 313 (1973), was the proper source of law. A majority of this Court reversed, overruling Bonelli and holding that the disputed ownership of the riverbed should be decided solely as a matter of Oregon law. Bonelli's error was said to have been reliance on the equal-footing doctrine as a source of federal common law. [Footnote 9] Once the equal-footing doctrine had vested title to the riverbed in Arizona, "it did not operate after that date to determine what effect on titles the movement of the river might have." 429 U.S. at 429 U. S. 371. State, rather than federal law, should have been applied.

California urges that, in rejecting Bonelli and holding that disputes about the title to lands granted by the United States are to be settled by state law, the Court also rejected Hughes, since that case involved land that had been patented by the United States to private owners. We do not agree. Corvallis itself recognized that federal law would continue to apply if "there were present some other principle of federal law requiring state law to be displaced." 429 U.S. at 429 U. S. 371. For example, the effects of accretive and avulsive changes in the

Page 457 U. S. 282

course of a navigable stream forming an interstate boundary is determined by federal law. Id. at 429 U. S. 375. The Corvallis opinion also recognized that Bonelli did not rest upon Hughes, and that the Hughes Court considered oceanfront property "sufficiently different . . . so as to justify a federal common law' rule of riparian proprietorship." 429 U.S. at 377, n. 6. The Corvallis decision did not purport to disturb Hughes.

Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe,442 U. S. 653 (1979), made clear that Corvallis also does not apply "where the [United States] Government has never parted with title and its interest in the property continues." 442 U.S. at 442 U. S. 670. [Footnote 10] The dispute in Corvallis was between the State and a private owner of land previously in federal possession. In contrast, the riparian owner in Wilson was the United States, holding reservation land in trust for the Omaha Indian Tribe. The issue was the effect of accretive or avulsive changes in the course of a navigable stream. State boundaries were not involved. What we said in Wilson is at least equally applicable here, where the United States has held title to, occupied, and utilized the littoral land for over 100 years:

"[T]he general rule recognized by Corvallis does not oust federal law in this case. Here, we are not dealing with land titles merely derived from a federal grant, but with land with respect to which the United States has never yielded title or terminated its interest."

442 U.S. at 442 U. S. 670.

Page 457 U. S. 283

We conclude, based on Hughes v. Washington and Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe, that 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.

III

Controversies governed by federal law do not inevitably require resort to uniform federal rules. Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe, supra, at 442 U. S. 672. It may be determined as a matter of choice of law that, although federal law should govern a given question, state law should be borrowed and applied as the federal rule for deciding the substantive legal issue at hand. Board of Commissioners of Jackson County v. United States,308 U. S. 343 (1939); Royal Indemnity Co. v. United States,313 U. S. 289 (1941). This is not such a case. First, and dispositive in itself, is the fact that Congress has addressed the issue of accretions to federal land. The Submerged Lands Act, 43 U.S.C. § 1301 et seq., vested title in the States to the lands underlying the territorial sea, which, in California's case, extended three miles seaward from the ordinary low-water line. The Act also confirmed the title of the States to the tidelands up to the line of mean high tide. Section 5(a) of the Act, however, withheld from the grant to the States all "accretions" to coastal lands acquired or reserved by the United States. [Footnote 11] 43 U.S.C. § 1313(a). In

Page 457 U. S. 284

light of this provision, borrowing for federal law purposes a state rule that would divest federal ownership is foreclosed. In Wilson, where we did adopt state law as the federal rule, no special federal concerns, let alone a statutory directive, required a federal common law rule.

Moreover, this is not a case in which federal common law must be created. For over 100 years, it has been settled under federal law that the right to future accretions is an inherent and essential attribute of the littoral or riparian owner. New Orleans v. United States, 10 Pet. 662, 35 U. S. 717 (1836); County of St. Clair v. Lovingston, 23 Wall. at 90 U. S. 68.

"'Almost all jurists and legislators, . . . both ancient and modern, have agreed that the owner of the land thus bounded is entitled to these additions.'"

Jefferis v. East Omaha Land Co., 134 U.S. at 134 U. S. 189, quoting Banks v. Ogden, 2 Wall. 57, 69 U. S. 67 (1865). We rejected the invitation to rely on state law in Hughes, which California readily admits is a case "in which the facts and issues are essentially identical," Statement in Support of Motion for Leave to File Complaint 16, and we see no reason at this juncture to adopt California's minority rule on artificial accretions, [Footnote 12] even if we were free to do so.

Page 457 U. S. 285

Applying the federal rule that accretions, regardless of cause, accrue to the upland owner, we conclude that title to the entire disputed land in issue is vested in the United States.

IV

Despite Hughes and Wilson, California claims ownership of the disputed lands because all of the accretions were deposited on tidelands and submerged lands, title to which, California submits, was vested in the State by the equal-footing doctrine and confirmed by the Submerged Lands Act. But California's claim to the land underlying the territorial sea was firmly rejected in United States v. California,332 U. S. 19 (1947), which held that only land underneath inland waters was included in the initial grant to the States under the equal-footing doctrine. Furthermore, the Submerged Lands Act was a constitutional exercise of Congress' power to dispose of federal property, Alabama v. Texas,347 U. S. 272, 347 U. S. 273-274 (1954), and "did not impair the validity" of the California decision, United States v. Louisiana,363 U. S. 1, 363 U. S. 7, 363 U. S. 20 (1960). [Footnote 13] In any event, whatever the ownership of the submerged lands, this approach, based as it is on the equal-footing doctrine and the federal statute, is not a claim that state law should govern, but a claim that the historic rule that accretions belong to the upland owner is wrong, and should be

Page 457 U. S. 286

replaced with a rule awarding title to the owner of the land on which the accretions took place. To accept this submission, however, would require rejecting not only Hughes, but also the long-established federal rule that accretions belong to the upland owner -- a doctrine consistent with the majority rule prevailing in the States. See457 U. S. supra. Indeed, the proposed rule is also inconsistent with California's own law that accretions attributable to natural causes belong to the upland owner. For all these reasons, we refuse the invitation to depart from the long-settled rule. [Footnote 14]

Independent of the above analysis, California claims that the United States expressly surrendered title to the disputed land through the Submerged Lands Act. California argues the subject land falls within the general grant to the States of "lands beneath navigable waters." Section 2(a)(3) of the Act defines "lands beneath navigable waters" to include "all filled in, made, or reclaimed lands which formerly were lands beneath navigable waters." 43 U.S.C. § 1301(a)(3). Because the jetty construction caused fairly rapid accretion, and, but for the construction of the jetties, the subject land would have remained submerged, California submits the accretion-formed land is "made" land, whose title rests in California by virtue of the Submerged Lands Act.

Page 457 U. S. 287

We do not read this provision of the Act as applying to the gradual process by which sand accumulated along the shore, although caused by a jetty affecting the action of the sea. [Footnote 15] Moreover, to the extent that the accretions are to be considered "made" land, they would fall within the reservation by the United States of "all lands filled in, built up, or otherwise reclaimed by the United States for its own use." This follows from the congressional object to assure each sovereign the continuing benefit of landfill and like work performed by each. [Footnote 16] 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, and both California and the United States agree that the exposure of the formerly submerged lands in dispute constitutes "accretion." This reading of the Act adheres to the principle that federal grants are to be construed strictly in favor of the United States. United States v. Grand River Dam Authority,363 U. S. 229, 363 U. S. 235 (1960);

Page 457 U. S. 288

United States v. Union Pacific R. Co.,353 U. S. 112, 353 U. S. 116 (1957).

Finally, California submits that the Act granted title to the State by confirming the title of persons who, on June 5, 1950, were entitled to such lands "under the law of the respective States in which the land is located. . . ." 43 U.S.C. § 1311(a). This provision means nothing more than that state law determines the proper beneficiary of the grant of land under the Act; it is clear that federal law determines the scope of the grant under the Act in the first instance.

V

We reaffirm today that federal law determines the boundary of oceanfront lands owned or patented by the United States. Applying the federal rule that accretions of whatever cause belong to the upland owner, we find that title to the disputed parcel rests with the United States. Accordingly, California's motion for summary judgment is denied, and the United States' motion for judgment on the pleadings is granted. The parties, or either of them, may, before September 27, 1982, submit a proposed decree to carry this opinion into effect, failing which the Court will prepare and enter an appropriate decree at the next Term of Court.

It is so ordered.

[Footnote 1]

Secretarial Order, December 27, 1859; Secretarial Order, Augut 19, 1871. See Exhibit C to Exhibits in Support of California's Motion for Leave to File Complaint.

[Footnote 2]

Construction of the jetties commenced on the South Spit in 1889 and on the North Spit in 1890. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco District, Survey Report on Humboldt Bay, California, App. 1, Shoreline Changes 2-3, 8-9 (Feb. 10, 1950), Exhibit D (hereafter cited as Corps Report). The north jetty was a massive work, having a total length of 7,500 feet.

[Footnote 3]

The United States and California agree that the seaward shift of the shoreline was caused by the construction of the jetties. A study by the Army Corps of Engineers found:

"With the inauguration of jetty construction in 1890, there began a series of interruptions in normal littoral transport [of sand]. With each increment in length of the jetties, the [Humboldt] bar was pushed seaward. Consequent decrease in offshore depths caused the shore to advance on each side of the inlet."

Id. at 8,

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