1. The complaint filed in this Court by the United States
against the State of California to determine which government owns,
or has paramount rights in and power over, the submerged land off
the coast of California between the low water mark and the
three-mile limit and 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) presents a case or
controversy under Article III, § 2, of the Constitution. Pp.
332 U. S.
2. The fact that the coastal line is indefinite, and that its
exact location will involve many complexities and difficulties
presents no insuperable obstacle to the exercise of the highly
important jurisdiction conferred on this Court by Article III, § 2,
of the Constitution. Pp. 332 U. S.
3. Congress has neither explicitly nor by implication stripped
the Attorney General of the power to invoke the jurisdiction of
this Court in this federal-state controversy, pursuant to his broad
authority under 5 U.S.C. §§ 291, 309, to protect the Government's
interests through the courts. Pp. 332 U. S.
4. California is not the owner of the three-mile marginal belt
along its coast, and the Federal Government, rather than the State,
has paramount rights in and power over that belt, an incident to
which is full dominion over the resources of the soil under that
water area, including oil. Pp. 332 U. S.
(a) There is no substantial support in history for the view that
the thirteen original colonies separately acquired ownership of the
three-mile belt beyond the low water mark or the soil under it,
even if they did acquire elements of the sovereignty of the English
Crown by their revolution against it. Pollard's
Lessee v. Hagan,
3 How. 212, distinguished. Pp.
332 U. S.
(b) Acquisition of the three-mile belt has been accomplished by
the National Government, and protection and control of it has been
and is a function of national external sovereignty. Pp.
332 U. S.
Page 332 U. S. 20
(c) The assertion by the political agencies of this Nation of
broad dominion and control over the three-mile marginal belt is
binding upon this Court. Pp. 332 U. S.
(d) The fact that the State has been authorized to exercise
local police power functions in the part of the marginal belt
within its declared boundaries does not detract from the Federal
Government's paramount rights in and power over this area. P.
332 U. S.
(e) Manchester v. Massachusetts, 139 U.
; Louisiana v. Mississippi, 202 U. S.
; The Abby Dodge, 223 U.
, distinguished. Pp. 332 U. S.
5. The Federal Government's paramount rights in the three-mile
belt have not been lost by reason of the conduct of its agents, nor
by this conduct is the Government barred from enforcing its rights
by reason of principles similar to laches, estoppel or adverse
possession. Pp. 332 U. S.
(a) The Government, which holds its interests here, as
elsewhere, in trust for all the people, is not to be deprived of
those interests by the ordinary court rules designed particularly
for private disputes over individually owned pieces of property. P.
332 U. S.
(b) Officers of the Government who have no authority at all to
dispose of Government property cannot, by their conduct, cause the
Government to lose its valuable rights by their acquiescence,
laches, or failure to act. P. 332 U. S.
6. The great national question whether the State or the Nation
has paramount rights in and power over the three-mile belt is not
dependent upon what expenses may have been incurred by public or
private agencies upon mistaken assumptions. P. 332 U. S.
7. It is not to be assumed that Congress, which has
constitutional control over Government property, will so execute
its powers as to bring about injustices to states, their
subdivisions, or persons acting pursuant to their permission. P.
332 U. S.
8. The United States is entitled to a decree declaring its
rights in the area in question 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. Pp. 332 U. S. 22
332 U. S.
The case is stated in the first paragraph of the opinion, and
the conclusion that the United States is entitled to the relief
prayed for is reported at page 332 U. S.
Page 332 U. S. 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 of, or possessed 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
Page 332 U. S. 23
northern and southern boundaries of the State of
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 petroleum, 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
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; [Footnote 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
Page 332 U. S. 24
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.
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 proceeding.
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 difference
is as to who owns, or has paramount rights in and power over,
several thousand square miles of
Page 332 U. S. 25
land under the ocean off the coast of California. The difference
involves the conflicting 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. West Virginia, 295 U. S. 463
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.
West Virginia, supra,
295 U. S. 471
. 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. Texas, 143 U.
, 143 U. S. 646
143 U. S. 648
United States v. Minnesota, 270 U.
, 270 U. S. 194
Nebraska v. Wyoming, 325 U. S. 589
325 U. S.
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 "inland
Page 332 U. S. 26
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
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 New Jersey v. Delaware, 291 U.
, 295 U. S. 295
694; Borax Consolidated, Ltd. v. Los Angeles, 296 U. S.
, 296 U. S. 21
Oklahoma v. Texas, 256 U. S. 70
256 U. S. 256
602. 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.
Oklahoma v. Texas, 258 U. S. 574
258 U. S. 582
Such practice is commonplace in actions similar to this which are
in the nature of equitable proceedings. See, e.g., Oklahoma v.
Texas, 256 U. S. 602
256 U. S. 609
260 U. S. 260
606, 260 U. S. 625
261 U. S. 261
340. California's contention concerning the indefiniteness of the
claim presents no insuperable obstacle to the exercise of the
highly important jurisdiction conferred on us by Article III of the
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
Page 332 U. S. 27
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. [Footnote 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 responsibilities
concerning the national domain. And, in effect, we are urged to
infer that Congress has, by implication, amended its long existing
statutes which grant the Attorney General broad powers to institute
and maintain court proceedings in order to safeguard national
An Act passed by Congress and signed by the President could, of
course, limit the power previously granted the Attorney General to
prosecute claims for the Government. For Article IV, § 3, Cl. 2 of
the Constitution vests in Congress "Power to dispose of and make
all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other
Property belonging to the United States." We have said that the
constitutional power of Congress in this respect is without
limitation. United States v. San Francisco, 310 U. S.
, 310 U. S. 29
Thus, neither the courts nor the executive agencies could proceed
contrary to an Act of Congress in this congressional area of
But no Act of Congress has amended the statutes which impose on
the Attorney General the authority and the duty to protect the
Government's interests through the
Page 332 U. S. 28
courts. See In re Cooper, 143 U.
, 143 U. S.
-503. That Congress twice failed to grant the
Attorney General specific authority to file suit against California
] is not a
sufficient basis upon which to rest a restriction of the Attorney
General's statutory authority. And no more can we reach such a
conclusion because both Houses of Congress passed a joint
resolution quitclaiming to the adjacent states a three mile belt of
all land situated under the ocean beyond the low water mark, except
those which the Government had previously acquired by purchase,
condemnation, or donation. [Footnote 5
] This joint resolution was vetoed by the
President. [Footnote 6
veto was sustained. [Footnote
] Plainly, the resolution does not represent an exercise of
the constitutional power of Congress to dispose of public property
under Article IV, § 3, Cl. 2.
Neither the matters to which we have specifically referred nor
any others relied on by California afford support for a holding
that Congress has either explicitly or by implication stripped the
Attorney General of his statutorily
Page 332 U. S. 29
granted power to invoke our jurisdiction in this federal-state
controversy. This brings us to the merits of the case.
The crucial question on the merits is not merely
who owns the bare legal title to the lands under the marginal sea.
The United States here asserts rights in two capacities
transcending those of a mere property owner. In one capacity, it
asserts the right and responsibility to exercise whatever power and
dominion are necessary to protect this country against dangers to
the security and tranquility of its people incident to the fact
that the United States is located immediately adjacent to the
ocean. The Government also appears in its capacity as a member of
the family of nations. In that capacity, it is responsible for
conducting United States relations with other nations. It asserts
that proper exercise of these constitutional responsibilities
requires that it have power, unencumbered by state commitments,
always to determine what agreements will be made concerning the
control and use of the marginal sea and the land under it.
See McCulloch v.
4 Wheat. 316, 17 U. S.
-408; United States v. Minnesota,
270 U. S. 181
270 U. S. 194
In the light of the foregoing, our question is whether the state or
the Federal Government has the paramount right and power to
determine in the first instance when, how, and by what agencies,
foreign or domestic, the oil and other resources of the soil of the
marginal sea, known or hereafter discovered, may be exploited.
California claims that it owns the resources of the soil under
the three-mile marginal belt as an incident to those elements of
sovereignty which it exercises in that water area. The state points
out that its original Constitution, adopted in 1849 before that
state was admitted to the Union, included within the state's
boundary the water area extending three English miles from the
shore. Cal.Const.1849, Art. XII, § 1; that the Enabling Act
Page 332 U. S. 30
admitted California to the Union ratified the territorial
boundary thus defined; and that California was admitted "on an
equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever," 9
Stat. 452. With these premises admitted, California contends that
its ownership follows from the rule originally announced in
Pollard's Lessee v.
3 How. 212; See
also Martin v.
16 Pet. 367, 41 U. S. 410
In the Pollard
case, it was held, in effect, that the
original states owned in trust for their people the navigable
tidewaters between high and low water mark within each state's
boundaries, and the soil under them, as an inseparable attribute of
state sovereignty. Consequently, it was decided that Alabama,
because admitted into the Union on "an equal footing" with the
other states, had thereby become the owner of the tidelands within
its boundaries. Thus, the title of Alabama's tidelands grantee was
sustained as valid against that of a claimant holding under a
United States grant made subsequent to Alabama's admission as a
The Government does not deny that, under the Pollard
rule, as explained in later cases, [Footnote 8
] California has a qualified ownership [Footnote 9
] of lands under inland
navigable waters such as rivers, harbors, and even tidelands down
to the low water mark. It does question the validity of the
rationale in the Pollard
case that ownership of such water
Page 332 U. S. 31
more than ownership of uplands, is a necessary incident of the
state sovereignty contemplated by the "equal footing" clause.
Cf. United States v. Oregon, 295 U. S.
, 295 U. S. 14
this reason, among others, it argues that the Pollard
should not be extended so as to apply to lands under the ocean. It
stresses that the thirteen original colonies did not own the
marginal belt; that the Federal Government did not seriously assert
its increasingly greater rights in this area until after the
formation of the Union; that it has not bestowed any of these
rights upon the states, but has retained them as appurtenances of
national sovereignty. And the Government insists that no previous
case in this Court has involved or decided conflicting claims of a
state and the Federal Government to the three-mile belt in a way
which requires our extension of the Pollard
rule to the ocean area.
It would unduly prolong our opinion to discuss in detail the
multitude of references to which the able briefs of the parties
have cited us with reference to the evolution of powers over
marginal seas exercised by adjacent countries. From all the wealth
of material supplied, however, we cannot say that the thirteen
original colonies separately acquired ownership to the three-mile
belt or the soil under it, [Footnote 10
] even if they did acquire elements of the
sovereignty of the English Crown by their revolution against it.
Cf. United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp.,
299 U. S. 304
299 U. S.
Page 332 U. S. 32
At the time this country won its independence from England,
there was no settled international custom or understanding among
nations that each nation owned a three-mile water belt along its
borders. Some countries, notably England, Spain, and Portugal, had,
from time to time, made sweeping claims to a right of dominion over
wide expanses of ocean. And controversies had arisen among nations
about rights to fish in prescribed areas. [Footnote 11
] But when this nation was formed,
the idea of a three-mile belt over which a littoral nation could
exercise rights of ownership was but a nebulous suggestion.
] Neither the
English charters granted to this nation's settlers, [Footnote 13
] nor the treaty of peace with
England, [Footnote 14
any other document to which we have been referred, showed a purpose
to set apart a three-mile ocean belt for colonial or state
ownership. [Footnote 15
Those who settled this country were interested in lands upon which
to live, and waters upon which to fish and sail. There is no
substantial support in history for the idea that they wanted or
claimed a right to block off
Page 332 U. S. 33
the ocean's bottom for private ownership and use in the
extraction of its wealth.
It did happen that, shortly after we became a nation, our
statesmen became interested in establishing national dominion over
a definite marginal zone to protect our neutrality. [Footnote 16
] Largely as a result of their
efforts, the idea of a definite three-mile belt in which an
adjacent nation can, if it chooses, exercise broad, if not complete
dominion, has apparently at last been generally accepted throughout
the world, [Footnote 17
although, as late as 1876, there was still considerable doubt in
England about its scope and even its existence. See The Queen
L.R. 2 Exch.Div. 63. That the political agencies of
this nation both claim and exercise broad dominion and control over
our three-mile marginal belt is now a settled fact. Cunard
Steamship Co. v. Mellon, 262 U. S. 100
262 U. S.
Page 332 U. S. 34
And this assertion of national dominion over the three-mile belt
is binding upon this Court. See Jones v. United States,
137 U. S. 202
137 U. S.
-214; In re Cooper, 143 U.
, 143 U. S.
Not only has acquisition, as it were, of the three-mile belt,
been accomplished by the national Government, but protection and
control of it has been and is a function of national external
sovereignty. See Jones v. United States, 137 U.
; In re Cooper, 143 U.
, 143 U. S. 502
The belief that local interests are so predominant as
constitutionally to require state dominion over lands under its
land-locked navigable waters finds some argument for its support.
But such can hardly be said in favor of state control over any part
of the ocean or the ocean's bottom. This country, throughout its
existence, has stood for freedom of the seas, a principle whose
breach has precipitated wars among nations. The country's adoption
of the three-mile belt is by no means incompatible with its
traditional insistence upon freedom of the sea, at least so long as
the national Government's power to exercise control consistently
with whatever international undertakings or commitments it may see
fit to assume in the national interest
Page 332 U. S. 35
is unencumbered. See Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U. S.
, 312 U. S. 62
McCulloch v. Maryland, supra.
The three-mile rule is but a
recognition of the necessity that a government next to the sea must
be able to protect itself from dangers incident to its location. It
must have powers of dominion and regulation in the interest of its
revenues, its health, and the security of its people from was waged
on or too near its coasts. And insofar as the nation asserts its
rights under international law, whatever of value may be discovered
in the seas next to its shores and within its protective belt, will
most naturally be appropriated for its use. But whatever any nation
does in the open sea which detracts from its common usefulness to
nations or which another nation may charge detracts from it
] is a question
for consideration among nations as such, and not their separate
governmental units. What this Government does, or even what the
states do, anywhere in the ocean is a subject upon which the nation
may enter into and assume treaty or similar international
obligations. See United States v. Belmont, 301 U.
, 301 U. S.
-332. The very oil about which the state and nation
here contend might well become the subject of international dispute
The ocean, even its three-mile belt, is thus of vital
consequence to the nation in its desire to engage in commerce and
to live in peace with the world; it also becomes of crucial
importance should it ever again become impossible to preserve that
peace. And as peace and world commerce are the paramount
responsibilities of the nation, rather than an individual state,
so, if wars come, they must be fought by the nation. See Chy
Lung v. Freeman, 92 U. S. 275
92 U. S. 279
The state is not equipped in our constitutional system with the
powers or the facilities for exercising the responsibilities which
would be concomitant with
Page 332 U. S. 36
the dominion which it seeks. Conceding that the state has been
authorized to exercise local police power functions in the part of
the marginal belt within its declared boundaries, [Footnote 20
] these do not detract from the
Federal Government's paramount rights in and power over this area.
Consequently, we are not persuaded to transplant the
rule of ownership as an incident of state
sovereignty in relation to inland waters out into the soil beneath
the ocean, so much more a matter of national concern. If this
rationale of the Pollard
case is a valid basis for a
conclusion that paramount rights run to the states in inland waters
to the shoreward of the low water mark, the same rationale leads to
the conclusion that national interests responsibilities, and
therefore national rights, are paramount in waters lying to the
seaward in the three-mile belt. Cf. United States v.
Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U. S. 304
299 U. S. 316
United States v. Causby, 328 U. S. 256
As previously stated, this Court has followed and reasserted the
basic doctrine of the Pollard
case many times. And, in
doing so, it has used language strong enough to indicate that the
Court then believed that states not only owned tidelands and soil
under navigable inland waters, but also owned soils under all
navigable waters within their territorial jurisdiction, whether
inland or not. All of these statements were, however, merely
paraphrases or offshoots of the Pollard
inland water rule,
and were used not as enunciation of a new ocean rule, but in
explanation of the old inland water principle. Notwithstanding the
fact that none of these cases either involved or decided the
state-federal conflict presented here, we are urged to say that the
language used and repeated in those cases forecloses
Page 332 U. S. 37
the Government from the right to have this Court decide that
question now that it is squarely presented for the first time.
There are three such cases whose language probably lends more
weight to California's argument than any others. The first is
Manchester v. Massachusetts, 139 U.
. That case involved only the power of
Massachusetts to regulate fishing. Moreover, the illegal fishing
charged was in Buzzards Bay, found to be within Massachusetts
territory, and no question whatever was raised or decided as to
title or paramount rights in the open sea. And the Court
specifically laid to one side any question as to the rights of the
Federal Government to regulate fishing there. The second case,
Louisiana v. Mississippi, 202 U. S.
, 202 U. S. 52
uses language about "the sway of the riparian states" over
"maritime belts." That was a case involving the boundary between
Louisiana and Mississippi. It did not involve any dispute between
the federal and state governments. And the Court there specifically
laid aside questions concerning "the breadth of the maritime belt
or the extent of the sway of the riparian states. . . ."
at 202 U. S. 52
third case is The Abby Dodge, 223 U.
. That was an action against a ship landing
sponges at a Florida port in violation of an Act of Congress, 34
Stat. 313, which made it unlawful to "land" sponges taken under
certain conditions from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This
Court construed the statute's prohibition as applying only to
sponges outside the state's "territorial limits" in the Gulf. It
thus narrowed the scope of the statute because of a belief that the
United States was without power to regulate the Florida traffic in
sponges obtained from within Florida's territorial limits,
presumably the three-mile belt. But the opinion in that case was
concerned with the state's power to regulate and conserve within
its territorial waters, not with its exercise of the right to use
Page 332 U. S. 38
resources which might be of national and international
importance. And there was no argument there, nor did this Court
decide, whether the Federal Government owned or had paramount
rights in the soil under the Gulf waters. That this question
remained undecided is evidenced by Skiriotes v. Florida,
313 U. S. 69
313 U. S. 75
where we had occasion to speak of Florida's power over sponge
fishing in its territorial waters. Through Mr. Chief Justice Hughes
"It is also clear that Florida has an interest in the proper
maintenance of the sponge fishery and that the [state] statute,
so far as applied to conduct within the territorial waters of
Florida, in the absence of conflicting federal legislation, is
within the police power of the State.
None of the foregoing cases, nor others which we have decided,
is sufficient to require us to extend the Pollard
water rule so as to declare that California owns or has paramount
rights in or power over the three-mile belt under the ocean. The
question of who owned the bed of the sea only became of great
potential importance at the beginning of this century, when oil was
discovered there. [Footnote
] As a consequence of this discovery, California passed an
Act in 1921 authorizing the granting of permits to California
residents to prospect for oil and gas on blocks of land off its
coast under the ocean. Cal.Stats.1921, c. 303, p. 404. This state
statute, and others which followed it, together with the leasing
practices under them, have precipitated this extremely important
controversy, and pointedly raised this state-federal conflict for
the first time. Now that the question is here, we decide for the
reasons we have stated that California is not the owner of the
three-mile marginal belt along its coast, and that the Federal
Government, rather than the state, has paramount rights in and
power over that belt, an incident to
Page 332 U. S. 39
which is full dominion over the resources of the soil under that
water area, including oil.
Nor can we agree with California that the
federal Government's paramount rights have been lost by reason of
the conduct of its agents. The state sets up such a defense,
arguing that, by this conduct, the Government is barred from
enforcing its rights by reason of principles similar to laches,
estoppel or adverse possession. It would serve no useful purpose to
recite the incidents in detail upon which the state relies for
these defenses. Some of them are undoubtedly consistent with a a
belief on the part of some Government agents at the time that
California owned all, or at least a part of the three-mile belt.
This belief was indicated in the substantial number of instances in
which the Government acquired title from the states to lands
located in the belt; some decisions of the Department of Interior
have denied applications for federal oil and gas leases in the
California coastal belt on the ground that California owned the
lands. Outside of court decisions following the Pollard
rule, the foregoing are the types of conduct most nearly indicative
of waiver upon which the state relies to show that the Government
has lost its paramount rights in the belt. Assuming that Government
agents could, by conduct short of a congressional surrender of
title or interest, preclude the Government from asserting its legal
rights, we cannot say it has done so here. As a matter of fact, the
record plainly demonstrates that, until the California oil issue
began to be pressed in the thirties, neither the states nor the
Government had reason to focus attention on the question of which
of them owned or had paramount rights in or power over the
three-mile belt. And even assuming that Government agencies have
been negligent in failing to recognize or assert the claims of the
Government at an earlier date, the great interests of the
Government in this ocean
Page 332 U. S. 40
area are not to be forfeited as a result. The Government, which
holds its interests here, as elsewhere, in trust for all the
people, is not to be deprived of those interests by the ordinary
court rules designed particularly for private disputes over
individually owned pieces of property; and officers who have no
authority at all to dispose of Government property cannot by their
conduct cause the Government to lose its valuable rights by their
acquiescence, laches, or failure to act. [Footnote 22
We have not overlooked California's argument, buttressed by
earnest briefs on behalf of other states, that improvements have
been made along and near the shores at great expense to public and
private agencies. And we note the Government's suggestion that the
aggregate value of all these improvements is small in comparison
with the tremendous value of the entire three-mile belt here in
controversy. But, however this may be, we are faced with the issue
as to whether state or nation has paramount rights in and power
over this ocean belt, and that great national question is not
dependent upon what expenses may have been incurred upon mistaken
assumptions. Furthermore, we cannot know how many of these
improvements are within and how many without the boundary of the
marginal sea which can later be accurately defined. But, beyond all
this, we cannot and do not assume that Congress, which has
constitutional control over Government property, will execute its
powers in such way as to bring about injustices to states, their
subdivisions, or persons acting pursuant to their permission.
See United States v. Texas, 162 U. S.
, 162 U. S. 89
Lee Wilson & Co. v. United States, 245 U. S.
, 245 U. S.
Page 332 U. S. 41
We hold that the United States is entitled to the relief prayed
for. The parties, or either of them, may, before September 15,
1947, submit the form of 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.
MR. JUSTICE JACKSON took no part in the consideration or
decision of this case.
* For order and decree entered October 27, 1947, see
p. 332 U. S. 804
The Government complaint claims an area extending three nautical
miles from shore; the California boundary purports to extend three
English miles. One nautical mile equals 1.15 English miles, so that
there is a difference of .45 of an English mile between the
boundary of the area claimed by the Government, and the boundary of
Cal.Const.1879, Art. XXI, § 1.
The claim of res judicata
rests on the following
contention. The United States sued in ejectment for certain lands
situated in San Francisco Bay. The defendant held the lands under a
grant from California. This Court decided that the state grant was
valid because the land under the Bay had passed to the state upon
its admission to the Union. United States v. Mission Rock
Co., 189 U. S. 391
There may be other reasons why the judgment in that case does not
bar this litigation, but it is a sufficient reason that this case
involves land under the open sea, and not land under the inland
waters of San Francisco Bay.
5 U.S.C. §§ 291, 309; United States v. San Jacinto Tin
Co., 125 U. S. 273
125 U. S. 279
125 U. S. 284
Kern River Co. v. United States, 257 U.
, 257 U. S.
-155; Sanitary District of Chicago v. United
States, 266 U. S. 405
266 U. S.
-426; see also In re Debs, 158 U.
, 158 U. S. 584
United States v. Oregon, 295 U. S. 1
295 U. S. 24
United States v. Wyoming,
323 U.S. 669, 329 U.S. 670.
S.J.Res.208, 75th Cong., 1st Sess. (1938); S.J.Res.83 and 92,
76th Cong., 1st Sess. (1939). S.J.Res.208 passed the Senate, 81
Cong.Rec. 9326 (1938), was favorably reported by the House
Judiciary Committee, H.R.Rep.2378, 75th Cong., 3d Sess. (1938), but
was never acted on in the House. Hearings were held on S.J.Res.83
and 92 before the Senate Committee on Public Lands and Surveys, but
no further action was taken. Hearings before the Senate Committee
on Public Lands and Surveys on S.J.Res.83 and 92, 76th Cong., 1st
Sess. (1939). In both hearings, objections to the resolutions were
repeatedly made on the ground that passage of the resolutions was
unnecessary, since the Attorney General already had statutory
authority to institute the proceedings. See
before the House Committee on the Judiciary on S.J.Res.208, 75th
Cong., 3d Sess., 42-45, 59-61 (1938); Hearings on S.J.Res.83 and
H.J.Res.225, 79th Cong., 2d Sess. (1946); 92 Cong.Rec. 9642,
92 Cong.Rec.10660 (1946).
92 Cong.Rec.10745 (1946).
See e.g., Manchester v. Massachusetts, 139 U.
; Louisiana v. Mississippi, 202 U. S.
; The Abby Dodge, 223 U.
. See also United States v. Mission Rock
Co., 189 U. S. 391
Borax, Consolidated, Ltd. v. Los Angeles, 296 U. S.
Although the Pollard
case has thus been generally
approved many times, the case of Shively v. Bowlby,
152 U. S. 1
152 U. S. 47
152 U. S. 58
held, contrary to implications of the Pollard
that the United States could lawfully dispose of tidelands while
holding a future state's land "in trust" as a territory.
See United States v. Commodore Park, 324 U.
, 324 U. S.
-391; Scranton v. Wheeler, 179 U.
, 179 U. S.
-160, 179 U. S. 163
Stockton v. Baltimore & N.Y. R. Co.,
32 F. 9, 20;
see also United States v. Chandler-Dunbar Water Power Co.,
229 U. S. 53
A representative collection of official documents and
scholarship on the subject is Crocker, The Extent of the Marginal
Sea (1919). See also
I. Azuni, Maritime Law of Europe
(published 1806) c. II; Fulton, Sovereignty of the Sea (1911);
Masterson, Jurisdiction in Marginal Seas (1929); Jessup, The Law of
Territorial Waters and Maritime Jurisdiction (1927); Fraser, The
Extent and Delimitation of Territorial Waters, 11 Corn.L.Q. 455
(1926); Ireland, Marginal Seas Around the States, 2 La.L.Rev. 252,
436 (1940); Comment, Conflicting State and Federal Claims of Title
in Submerged Lands of the Continental Shelf, 56 Yale L.J. 356
Fulton, op. cit. supra,
145; Jessup, op. cit. supra,
Fulton, op. cit. supra,
21, says in fact that
"mainly through the action and practice of the United States of
America and Great Britain since the end of the eighteenth century,
the distance of three miles from shore was more or less formally
adopted by most maritime states as . . . more definitely fixing the
limits of their jurisdiction and rights for various purposes, and,
in particular, for exclusive fishery."
Collected in Thorpe, American Charters, Constitutions, and
Organic Laws 1919.
Treaty of 1783, 8 Stat. 80.
The Continental Congress did for example authorize capture of
neutral and even American ships carrying British goods, "if found
within three leagues (about nine miles) of the coasts." Journ. of
Cong. 185, 186, 187 (1781). Cf.
Declaration of Panama of
1939, 1 Dept. of State Bull. 321 (1939), claiming the right of the
American Republics to be free from a hostile act in a zone 300
miles from the American coasts.
Secretary of State Jefferson, in a note to the British minister
in 1793, pointed to the nebulous character of a nation's assertions
of territorial rights in the marginal belt and put forward the
first official American claim for a three-mile zone, which has
since won general international acceptance. Reprinted in
H.Ex.Doc.No. 324, 42d Cong., 2d Sess. (1872) 553-554. See
Secretary Jefferson's note to the French Minister, Genet,
reprinted American State Papers, I Foreign Relations (1833), 183,
384; Act of June 5, 1794, 1 Stat. 381; 1 Kent, Commentaries, 14th
Jessup, op. cit. supra,
66; Research in
International Law, 23 A.J.I.L. 249, 250 (Spec.Supp.1929).
See also Church v.
2 Cranch 187, 6 U. S. 234
Congressional assertion of a territorial zone in the sea appears in
statutes regulating seals, fishing, pollution of waters, etc. 36
Stat. 326, 328; 43 Stat. 604, 605; 37 Stat. 499, 501. Under the
National Prohibition Act, territory including "a marginal belt of
the sea extending from low water mark outward a marine league, or 3
geographical miles" constituting the "territorial waters of the
United States" was regulated. See
U.S.Treas.Reg. 2, § 2201
(1931), Reprinted in Research in International Law, supra,
250; 41 Stat. 305. Anti-smuggling treaties in which foreign nations
agreed to permit the United States to pursue smugglers beyond the
three-mile limit contained express stipulations that, generally,
the three-mile limit constitutes "the proper limits of territorial
waters." See e.g.,
43 Stat. 1761, Pt. 2.
There are innumerable executive declarations to the world of our
national claims to the three-mile belt, and more recently to the
whole continental shelf. For references to diplomatic
correspondence making these assertions, see
International Law Digest (1906) 705, 706, 707; 1 Wharton, Digest of
International Law (1886) 100. See also
Questions and Negotiations, 18 A.J.I.L. 229 (1924).
The latest and broadest claim in President Truman's recent
proclamation that the United States
"regards the natural resources of the subsoil and sea bed of the
continental shelf beneath the high seas but contiguous to the
coasts of the United States as appertaining to the United States,
subject to its jurisdiction and control. . . . ."
Executive Proclamation No. 2667, Sept. 28, 1945, 10 F.R.
See Lord v. Steamship Co., 102 U.
, 102 U. S.
See Utah Power & Light Co. v. United States,
243 U. S. 389
243 U. S. 404
cf. The Abby Dodge, 223 U. S. 166
with Skiriotes v. Florida, 313 U. S.
, 313 U. S.
Bull.No.321, Dept. of Interior, Geological Survey.
United States v. Francisco, 310 U. S.
, 310 U. S. 31
Utah v. United States, 284 U. S. 534
284 U. S.
-546; Lee Wilson & Co. v. United States,
245 U. S. 24
245 U. S. 32
Utah Power & Light Co. v. United States, 243 U.
, 243 U. S. 409
see also Sec'y of State for India v. Chelikani Rama Rao,
L.R. 43 Indian App. 192, 204 (1916).
MR. JUSTICE REED, dissenting.
In my view, the controversy brought before this Court by the
complaint of the United States against California seeks a judgment
between State and Nation as to the ownership of the land underlying
the Pacific Ocean, seaward of the ordinary low water mark, on the
coast of California and within the three-mile limit. The ownership
of that land carries with it, it seems to me, the ownership of any
minerals or other valuables in the soil, as well as the right to
The determination as to the ownership of the land in controversy
turns, for me, on the fact as to ownership in the original thirteen
states of similar lands prior to the formation of the Union. If the
original states owned the bed of the sea, adjacent to their coasts,
to the three-mile limit, then I think California has the same title
or ownership to the lands adjacent to her coast. The original
states were sovereignties in their own right, possessed of so much
of the land underneath the adjacent seas as was generally
recognized to be under their jurisdiction. The scope of their
jurisdiction and the boundaries of their lands were coterminous.
Any part of that territory which had not passed from their
ownership by existing valid grants were and remained public lands
of the respective states. California, as is customary, was admitted
Page 332 U. S. 42
the Union "on an equal footing with the original States in all
respects whatever." 9 Stat. 452. By § 3 of the Act of Admission,
the public lands within its borders were reserved for disposition
by the United States. "Public lands" was there used in its usual
sense of lands subject to sale under general laws. As was the rule,
title to lands under navigable waters vested in California as it
had done in all other states. Pollard v.
3 How. 212; Barney v. City of
Keokuk, 94 U. S. 324
94 U. S. 338
Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U. S. 1
152 U. S. 49
Mann v. Tacoma Land Co., 153 U. S. 273
153 U. S. 284
Borax Consolidated, Ltd. v. City of Los Angeles,
296 U. S. 10
296 U. S.
The authorities cited in the Court's opinion lead me to the
conclusion that the original states owned the lands under the seas
to the three-mile limit. There were, of course, as is shown by the
citations, variations in the claims of sovereignty, jurisdiction or
ownership among the nations of the world. As early as 1793,
Jefferson, as Secretary of State, in a communication to the British
Minister, said that the territorial protection of the United States
would be extended "three geographical miles," and added:
"This distance can admit of no opposition, as it is recognized
by treaties between some of the powers with whom we are connected
in commerce and navigation, and is as little, or less, than is
claimed by any of them on their own coasts."
H.Ex. Doc. No. 324, 42d Cong., 2d Sess., pp. 553, 554. If the
original states did claim, as I think they did, sovereignty and
ownership to the three-mile limit, California has the same rights
in the lands bordering its littoral.
This ownership in California would not interfere in any way with
the needs or rights of the United States in war or peace. The power
of the United States is plenary over these undersea lands precisely
as it is over every
Page 332 U. S. 43
river, farm, mine, and factory of the nation. While no square
ruling of this Court has determined the ownership of those marginal
lands, to me, the tone of the decisions dealing with similar
problems indicates that, without discussion, state ownership has
been assumed. Pollard v. Hagan, supra; Louisiana v.
Mississippi, 202 U. S. 1
202 U. S. 52
The Abby Dodge, 223 U. S. 166
New Jersey v. Delaware, 291 U. S. 361
295 U. S. 295
MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER, dissenting.
By this original bill, the United States prayed for a decree
enjoining all persons, including those asserting a claim derived
from the California, from trespassing upon the disputed area. An
injunction against trespassers normally presupposes property
rights. The Court, however, grants the prayer, but does not do so
by finding that the United States has proprietary interests in the
area. To be sure it denies such proprietary rights in California.
But even if we assume an absence of ownership or possessory
interest on the part of California, that does not establish a
proprietary interest in the United States. It is significant that
the Court does not adopt the Government's elaborate argument, based
on dubious and tenuous writings of publicists, see
Schwarzenberger, Inductive Approach to International Law, 60
Harv.L.Rev. 539, 559, that this part of the open sea belongs, in a
proprietary sense, to the United States. See American Banana
Co. v. United Fruit Co., 213 U. S. 347
[argument of counsel -- omitted]. Instead, the Court finds trespass
against the United States on the basis of what it calls the
"national dominion" by the United States over this area.
To speak of "dominion" carries precisely those overtones in the
law which relate to property, and not to political authority.
Dominion, from the Roman concept dominium,
with property and ownership,
Page 332 U. S. 44
as against imperium,
which related to political
sovereignty. One may choose to say, for example, that the United
States has "national dominion" over navigable streams. But the
power to regulate commerce over these streams, and its continued
exercise, do not change the imperium
of the United States
over the land below the waters. Of course,
the United States has "paramount rights" in the sea belt of
California -- the rights that are implied by the power to regulate
interstate and foreign commerce, the power of condemnation, the
treaty-making power, the war power. We have not now before us the
validity of the exercise of any of these paramount rights. Rights
of ownership are here asserted -- and rights of ownership are
something else. Ownership implies acquisition in the various ways
in which land is acquired -- by conquest, by discovery and claim,
by cession, by prescription, by purchase, by condemnation. When and
how did the United States acquire this land?
The fact that these oil deposits in the open sea may be vital to
the national security, and important elements in the conduct of our
foreign affairs, is no more relevant than is the existence of
uranium deposits, wherever they may be, in determining questions of
trespass to the land of which they form a part. This is not a
situation where an exercise of national power is actively and
presently interfered with. In such a case, the inherent power of a
federal court of equity may be invoked to prevent or remove the
obstruction. In re Debs, 158 U. S. 564
Sanitary District of Chicago v. United States,
266 U. S. 405
Neither the bill, nor the opinion sustaining it, suggests that
there is interference by California or the alleged trespassers with
any authority which the Government presently seeks to exercise. It
is beside the point to say that, "if wars come, they must be fought
by the nation." Nor is it relevant that "The very oil about which
the state and nation here
Page 332 U. S. 45
contend might well become the subject of international dispute
and settlement." It is common knowledge that uranium has become
"the subject of international dispute" with a view to settlement.
Compare Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.
To declare that the Government has "national dominion" is merely
a way of saying that, vis-a-vis
all other nations, the
Government is the sovereign. If that is what the Court's decree
means, it needs no pronouncement by this Court to confer or declare
such sovereignty. If it means more than that, it implies that the
Government has some proprietary interest. That has not been
remotely established except by sliding from absence of ownership by
California to ownership by the United States.
Let us assume, for the present, that ownership by California
cannot be proven. On a fair analysis of all the evidence bearing on
ownership, then, this area is, I believe, to be deemed unclaimed
land, and the determination to claim it on the part of the United
States is a political decision not for this Court. The Constitution
places vast authority for the conduct of foreign relations in the
independent hands of the President. See United States v.
Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U. S. 304
is noteworthy that the Court does not treat the President's
proclamation in regard to the disputed area as an assertion of
Exec.Proc. 2667 (Sept. 28, 1945), 10 F.R.
12303. If California is found to have no title, and this area is
regarded as unclaimed land, I have no doubt that the President and
the Congress, between them, could make it part of the national
domain, and thereby bring it under Article IV, Section 3, of the
Constitution. The disposition of the area, the rights to be created
in it, the rights heretofore claimed in it through usage that might
be respected though it fall short of prescription, all raise
appropriate questions of policy, questions of accommodation,
Page 332 U. S. 46
for the determination of which Congress, and not this Court, is
the appropriate agency.
Today this Court has decided that a new application even in the
old field of torts should not be made by adjudication where
Congress has refrained from acting. United States v. Standard
Oil Co., 332 U. S. 301
Considerations of judicial self-restraint would seem to me far more
compelling where there are obviously at stake claims that involve
so many far-reaching, complicated, historic interests, the proper
adjustments of which are not readily resolved by the materials and
methods to which this Court is confined.
This is a summary statement of views which it would serve no
purpose to elaborate. I think that the bill should be dismissed