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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19 (1947)

United States v. California

No. 12, Original

Argued March 13-14, 1947

Decided June 23, 1947*

332 U.S. 19


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. 24-25.

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. 25-26.

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. 26-29.

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. 29-39.

(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. @ 44 U. S. 29-33.

(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. 33-35.

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. 33-34.

(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. 36.

(e) Manchester v. Massachusetts, 139 U. S. 240; Louisiana v. Mississippi, 202 U. S. 1; The Abby Dodge, 223 U. S. 166, distinguished. Pp. 332 U. S. 36-38.

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. 39-40.

(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. 40.

(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. 40.

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. 40.

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. 40.

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. 22-23, 332 U. S. 41.

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. 41.

Page 332 U. S. 22

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