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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Louisiana, 394 U.S. 11 (1969)

United States v. Louisiana

No. 9, Orig.

Argued October 14-15, 1968

Decided March 3, 1969

394 U.S. 11


In United States v. Louisiana, 363 U. S. 1, the Court held that, by the Submerged Lands Act of 1953, the United States had quitclaimed to Louisiana lands underlying the Gulf of Mexico within three geographical miles of the coastline, the United States being declared entitled to the lands further seaward. The decree and the Act defined "coast line" as "the 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." The United States and Louisiana filed cross-motions for a supplemental decree designating the boundary of the lands under the Gulf owned by Louisiana, the parties differing primarily with respect to that part of the coastline consisting of "the line marking the seaward limit of inland waters." The United States contends that the definitions of "inland waters" contained in the international Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (hereafter Convention) should determine the location of that line, while Louisiana urges that the governing boundary is a line it calls the "Inland Water Line" which was fixed by the Commandant of the Coast Guard pursuant to an 1895 federal statute which directed the drawing of "lines dividing the high seas from rivers, harbors, and inland waters." Louisiana urges, alternatively, that the decree proposed by the United States reflects an overly strict construction of the Convention's provisions.


1. That part of Louisiana's coastline which, under the Submerged Lands Act, consists of "the line marking the seaward limit of inland waters," is to be drawn in accordance with the Convention's definitions. Pp. 394 U. S. 17-35.

(a) Congress deliberately "chose to leave the definition of inland waters . . . in the Court's hands" (United States v. California, 381 U. S. 139, 381 U. S. 157), and did not intend to tie the meaning of "inland waters" to the 1895 Act, which was enacted to separate the areas in which shipping must follow inland navigation rules from those in which it must follow international rules. Pp. 394 U. S. 19-21.

Page 394 U. S. 12

(b) In United States v. California, the Court held that the Convention's definitions were "the best and most workable. . . available," and adopted them for the purposes of the Submerged Lands Act. P. 394 U. S. 21.

(c) Nothing in either the enactment of the 1895 Act or in its administration indicates that the United States has treated the "Inland Water Line" as a territorial boundary. The reasonable regulation of navigation is not alone a sufficient exercise of dominion to constitute a claim to historic inland waters; and, in any event, no such claim can be made in the face of longstanding disclaimers of historic title and the absence of any treatment of the "Inland Water Line" by the United States as delimiting an area within which it can exercise jurisdiction over anything but navigation. Pp. 394 U. S. 21-32.

(d) The Court's adoption, in United States v. California, of the Convention definitions was "for the purposes of the Submerged Lands Act," and not simply for the purpose of delineating a particular State's coastline. If the inconvenience of an ambulatory coastline proves substantial, the problems may be resolved through legislation or agreement between the parties. Pp. 394 U. S. 32-35.

2. Though the Court is able, on the basis of the materials now before it, to decide many issues involving application of the Convention to the Louisiana coast, the Court has decided to refer to a Special Master several particularized disputes over the precise boundary between submerged Gulf lands belonging to the United States and those belonging to Louisiana, since resolution of several of such disputes cannot be made without evidentiary hearings, and resolution of others in this technical and unfamiliar area would benefit from the preliminary judgment of a detached referee. Pp. 394 U. S. 35-78.

(a) Dredged channels in the Gulf leading to inland harbors, not being raised structures, do not come within the category of "permanent harbour works" forming "an integral part of the harbour system," which are to be considered part of the "coast" under Article 8 of the Convention, and, therefore, that provision does not establish such channels as inland waters. Pp. 394 U. S. 36-40.

(b) By application of Article 11 to the Louisiana coast, the low tide elevations situated in the territorial sea (here the three-mile grant to Louisiana under the Submerged Lands Act) as measured from bay-closing lines are part of the coastline from which the Act's three-mile grant extends. Pp. 394 U. S. 40-47.

Page 394 U. S. 13

(c) Article 7 of the Convention permits (in paragraph 4) a 24-mile maximum closing line for bays and (in paragraph 2) a "semicircle test" for determining the sufficiency of the water area enclosed (which requires that a bay must embrace at least as much water area within its closing line as would be contained in a semicircle with a diameter equal to the length of the closing line). "Outer Vermilion Bay," an area within a closing line from Tigre Point to Shell Keys, does not qualify as a bay under the semicircle test, because it would be part of a larger indentation whose closing line far exceeds the 24-mile limit. Pp. 394 U. S. 48-52.

(d) "Ascension Bay," whose headlands are jetties at Belle Pass on the west and Southwest Pass on the east, includes the inner bays of the Barataria Bay-Caminada Bay complex, which are separated from the outer indentation only by a string of islands across the bays' entrances. Ascension Bay meets the semicircle test when the islands are treated (as provided by Article 7(3)) "as if they were part of the water area." Pp. 394 U. S. 52-53.

(e) Though East Bay does not meet the semicircle test on a closing line between its seaward-most headlands, Louisiana contends that a part of that indentation qualifies as a bay simply because a line can be drawn within it which would satisfy the semicircle test; however, no such area can qualify as a bay unless its own features, not those of the larger indentation, meet the requirements specified in Article 7(2), as well as the semicircle test therein. Pp. 394 U. S. 53-54.

(f) Where islands intersected by a direct closing line between the mainland headlands create multiple mouths to a bay (the situation with respect to the Lake Pelto-Terrebonne Bay-Timbalier Bay complex), the bay should be closed by lines between the natural entrance points on the islands, even if those points are landward of the direct line between the mainland entrance points. Pp. 394 U. S. 54-60.

(g) The Convention does not prohibit the drawing of bay-closing lines to islands where (as is true of much of the Louisiana coast) insular configurations really are "part of the mainland", and it is left to the Special Master initially to determine whether islands which Louisiana has designated as headlands of bays are so integrally related to the mainland as realistically to be parts of the "coast" within the meaning of the Convention. Pp. 394 U. S. 60-66.

(h) Fringes or chains of islands are treated the same as other islands, and are not taken into account as enclosing inland waters

Page 394 U. S. 14

unless, under Article 4, the coastal nation decides in the conduct of its international affairs to draw straight baselines joining appropriate points. The United States, within its discretion, has decided not to draw straight baselines along the Louisiana coast, and this exercise of discretion is not appropriately subject to review by the Court. Pp. 394 U. S. 66-73.

(i) The Court leaves to the Special Master the task of determining whether any of the Louisiana coastal waters are "historic bays" within the meaning of Article 7(6), and the Special Master should consider state exercises of dominion as relevant to the existence of historic title. Pp. 394 U. S. 74-78.

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