United States v. Maine
475 U.S. 89 (1986)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Maine, 475 U.S. 89 (1986)

United States v. Maine

No. 35, Orig.

Argued December 12, 1985

Decided February 25, 1986

475 U.S. 89

Syllabus

This case, which was instituted by the United States to quiet title to the seabed along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, presents the question whether Nantucket Sound qualifies as "internal waters" of Massachusetts rather than partly territorial sea and partly high seas as the United States contends. Massachusetts has excepted to the portion of the Special Master's report that concludes that Nantucket Sound is not a part of Massachusetts' inland waters under the doctrine of "ancient title." Massachusetts contends that, under such doctrine, the English Crown acquired title to Nantucket Sound as a result of discovery and occupation by colonists in the early 17th century, and that Massachusetts has succeeded to the Crown's title.

Held: Massachusetts cannot prevail under the doctrine of "ancient title." Pp. 475 U. S. 93-105.

(a) Principles of international law have been followed consistently in fixing the United States' coastline. Massachusetts contends that the doctrine of "ancient title" is a sufficient basis for identifying a "historic bay," under Article 7(6) of the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, so as to constitute "internal waters" of the sovereign. To claim "ancient title" to waters that would otherwise constitute high seas or territorial sea, a sovereign must base its title on "occupation," that is, a title based on "clear original title" which is fortified "by long usage." The parties agree that effective "occupation" must have taken place before the freedom of the seas became a part of international law -- no later than the latter half of the 18th century. Pp. 475 U. S. 93-96.

(b) The pertinent exhibits and transcripts show that Massachusetts did not effectively "occupy" Nantucket Sound so as to obtain "clear original title" and fortify that title "by long usage" before the seas were recognized to be free. For purposes of the "ancient title" doctrine, "occupation" requires, at a minimum, the existence of acts, attributable to the sovereign, manifesting an assertion of exclusive authority over the waters claimed. The historical evidence introduced by Massachusetts does not show occupation by the colonists of Nantucket Sound as a whole. Massachusetts' evidence of occupation is also deficient because it does not warrant a finding that the colonists asserted any exclusive right to the waters. Moreover, Massachusetts has not established any linkage between the colonists' activities and the English Crown. Thus, Great

Page 475 U. S. 90

Britain did not obtain title which could devolve upon Massachusetts. Pp. 475 U. S. 97-103.

(c) The determination that Massachusetts had not established clear title prior to freedom of the seas is corroborated by its consistent failure to assert dominion over Nantucket Sound since that time. Rather, during the 18th and 19th centuries Massachusetts continued to treat Nantucket Sound in a manner inconsistent with its recent characterization of that body as internal waters. Pp. 475 U. S. 103-105. Exception overruled.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except MARSHALL, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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