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U.S. Supreme Court

Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Mississippi, 484 U.S. 469 (1988)

Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Mississippi

No. 86-870

Argued November 9, 1987

Decided February 23, 1988

484 U.S. 469


Petitioners hold record title to 42 acres of Mississippi land underlying a bayou and a number of streams, which, although several miles north of the Gulf Coast and nonnavigable, are nonetheless influenced by the tide, since they are adjacent and tributary to a navigable river flowing into the Gulf of Mexico that is affected by the tide's ebb and flow. Petitioners brought a quiet title suit after the State issued oil and gas leases for the property in question on the theory that it had acquired at the time of statehood and held in public trust all land lying under any waters influenced by the tide, whether navigable or not. The State Supreme Court affirmed the Chancery Court's decision finding that the State had fee simple title to the property, rejecting petitioners' contention that the State had acquired title only to lands under navigable waters.


1. Since the States, upon entering the Union, were given ownership over all lands beneath waters subject to the tide's influence -- see, e.g., Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U. S. 1; Knight v. United States Land Assn., 142 U. S. 161 -- the lands at issue passed to Mississippi at the time of statehood, even though the waters under which they lay were not navigable in fact. Pp. 484 U. S. 473-481.

(a) Petitioners' contention that, under the English common law rule, the Crown's ownership of lands beneath tidewaters actually rested on the navigability of those waters, rather than the ebb and flow of the tide, is not persuasive, since the cases relied on by petitioners did not deal with tidal, nonnavigable waters, while Shivley v. Bowlby, supra, and its progeny, clearly establish how this Court has interpreted the common law. Although none of the latter cases actually dealt with lands such as those involved here, this Court has never suggested that its rule that the States owned all the soil beneath waters affected by the tide was anything less than an accurate description of the governing law. Pp. 484 U. S. 477-478.

(b) Petitioners' contention that subsequent cases from this Court developing the American public trust doctrine make it clear that navigability -- and not tidal influence -- has become the sine qua non of the public trust interest in tidelands in this country is a!so not persuasive. Although @ 53 U. S. 478-480.

(c) Petitioners' position is weakened by their concession that the States own the nonnavigable tidelands bordering the oceans, bays, and estuaries. While it is obvious that these waters are part of the sea, and that the lands beneath them are state property, ultimately, the only proof of this fact can be that the waters are influenced by the ebb and flow of the tide. Moreover, although there is a difference in degree between the waters in this case and nonnavigable seashore waters that are affected by the tide, there is no difference in kind, since both types of waters are connected to the sea and share those geographical, chemical, and environmental qualities that make lands beneath tidal waters unique. The ebb-and-flow rule has the benefit of uniformity, certainty, and ease of application, and will not be abandoned now, after its lengthy history, in favor of one of the unpersuasive and unsatisfactory alternatives offered by petitioners. Pp. 484 U. S. 480-481.

2. The contention that the State Supreme Court's decision is inequitable, and would upset various kinds of property expectations and interests which have matured since the State joined the Union, is without merit. By consistently holding that the public trust in lands under water includes "title to all land under tidewater," and by describing uses of such lands not related to navigability, Mississippi cases have clearly and unequivocally indicated the State's claims to tidelands, whether navigable or not, such that any contrary expectations cannot be considered reasonable. Affirming the judgment below will not upset land titles in all coastal States, as petitioners contend, but will simply confirm prevailing ownership rights both in States having the same rule as Mississippi and in other States that have granted all or a portion of their tidelands to adjacent upland property owners. Indeed, it would be far more upsetting to settled expectations to reverse on the ground that the scope of the public trust is limited to lands beneath navigable tidal waters, since many lands titles, interests, and rights have been created on the basis of the ebb-and-flow rule. The fact that petitioners have long been the record titleholders, or paid taxes on the lands in question, cannot divest the State of its ownership, since the State Supreme Court held that, under Mississippi law, the State's ownership could not be lost via adverse possession, laches, or any other equitable doctrine. There is no reason here to set aside the general principle ceding the development

Page 484 U. S. 471

and administration of real property law to the individual States. Pp. 484 U. S. 481-484

491So.2d 508, affirmed.

WHITE, J. . delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS and SCALIA, JJ., joined, post, p. 485. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 484 U. S. 472

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