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U.S. Supreme Court

State Land Bd. v. Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co., 429 U.S. 363 (1977)

Oregon ex rel. State Land Bd. v. Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co.

No. 75-567

Argued October 4, 1976

Decided January 12, 1977*

429 U.S. 363


This litigation involves a dispute between the State of Oregon and an Oregon corporation over the ownership of two portions of land underlying the Willamette River, which is navigable but not an interstate boundary. The first portion has been within the riverbed since Oregon's admission into the Union, while the second portion is in an area that was not part of the riverbed at the time of Oregon's admission, but later became part of the riverbed because of changes in the river's course. In an ejectment action brought by Oregon against the corporation, which had been digging in the disputed part of the riverbed for 40 to 50 years without a lease from the State, the trial court awarded the first portion to the State on the ground that it had acquired sovereign title thereto upon admission into the Union and had not conveyed it, but with respect to the second portion found that avulsion, rather than accretion, had caused the changes in the river channel, and that therefore the title to the land remained in the corporation, its original owner before it became riverbed. The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed, taking the view that it was bound to apply federal common law to the resolution of the dispute by Bonelli Cattle Co. v. Arizona, 414 U. S. 313, and accordingly holding that the trial court's award of the second portion to the corporation was correct either under the theory of avulsion or under an exception to the accretion rule, and that preservation of the State's interest in navigation, fishing, and other related goals did not require that it acquire ownership of the new riverbed. The Oregon Supreme Court affirmed, with certain modifications dealing only with a factual question regarding the length of the second portion.

Held: The disputed ownership of the riverbed lands should be decided solely as a matter of Oregon law, and not by federal common law, since application of federal common law is required neither by the equal-footing doctrine nor by any other principle of federal law. If the lands at issue did pass under the equal-footing doctrine, state title is not subject to defeasance and state law governs subsequent

Page 429 U. S. 364

dispositions. A similar result obtains in the case of riparian lands which did not pass under that doctrine; state law governs issues relating to such property, like other real property, unless some other principle of federal law requires a different result. Bonelli Cattle Co., supra, was wrong in treating the equal-footing doctrine as a source of federal common law after the doctrine had vested title to the riverbed in question in that case in the State of Arizona as of the time of its admission into the Union, and, accordingly, that case's application of federal common law to cases such as the instant one is overruled. Pp. 429 U. S. 368-382.

272 Ore. 545, 536 P.2d 517; 272 Ore. 550, 538 P.2d 70, vacated and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 429 U. S. 382. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 429 U. S. 382.

Page 429 U. S. 365

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