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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. California, 447 U.S. 1 (1980)

United States v. California, 447 U.S. 1 (1980)

No. 5, Orig.

Argued March 17, 1980

Decided June 9, 1980

447 U.S. 1


The issue presented at this stage of this original action is whether -- for purposes of determining California's ownership under the Submerged Lands Act of submerged lands and natural resources lying within three geographical miles seaward of the California coastline -- the coastline follows the mean lower low-water line along the natural shore, or whether it follows the seaward edge of 15 piers and the Rincon Island complex projecting into the sea from the shore. Rincon Island, a privately owned artificial "island" used to service offshore oil facilities, is erected upon foundations resting on the ocean floor, has a dock on the seaward side, and is connected to the mainland by a causeway structure under which water flows freely. Neither the causeway nor the island have had any noticeable effect on the shoreline, and the complex is not a coast protective work. The piers in question, some of which are privately owned and some of which are operated by the State as docking facilities or for recreational purposes, are all attached to the mainland; water flows freely underneath each; they have no effect on the shoreline, and are not coast protective works. The Special Master concluded that the piers and the Rincon Island complex do not constitute extensions of the coast, and that the coastline follows the natural coast in the vicinity of these structures. California filed an exception to the Master's report.

Held: The Special Master's conclusion is proper. Under the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, which is used for guidance

Page 447 U. S. 2

in defining "coastline" for purposes of the Submerged Lands Act, the general rule expressed in Art. 3 therein is that the

"normal baseline for measuring the breadth of the territorial sea is the low-water line along the coast as marked on large-scale charts officially recognized by the coastal State."

Although the type of construction of the open piers involved here, being elevated above the ocean's surface on pilings, does not, without more, require a determination adverse to California, the absence of a "lower low-water line" deprives them of a "normal baseline," and precludes them from falling within the ambit of Art. 3. Moreover, Art. 8 of the Convention, whereby "the outermost permanent harbour works which form an integral part of the harbour system shall be regarded as forming part of the coast," does not encompass all structures erected on the shore. The structures in this case are not harbors, and are not a part of outermost "harbour works," since they neither "protect," "enclose," nor "shelter," Louisiana Boundary Case, 394 U. S. 11, 394 U. S. 37, n. 42, and thus they cannot constitute an integral part of a harbor system. Nor does the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act and decisions thereunder indicate that Congress has withdrawn from the courts the authority to define "coastline" for purposes of the Submerged Lands Act. Pp. 447 U. S. 9.

Exception to Special Master's report overruled.

BURGER, C 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.

Page 447 U. S. 3

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