GEORGIA V. SOUTH CAROLINA, 497 U. S. 376 (1990)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Georgia v. South Carolina, 497 U.S. 376 (1990)

Georgia v. South Carolina

No. 74, Orig.

Argued Jan. 8, 1990

Decided June 25, 1990

497 U.S. 376


This suit involves a dispute between Georgia and South Carolina over the location of their boundary along the Savannah River, downstream from the city of Savannah and at the river's mouth, and their lateral seaward boundary. In 1787, the parties agreed in the Treaty of Beaufort that the boundary along the river was the river's "most northern branch or

Page 497 U. S. 377

stream," "reserving all islands in [the river] to Georgia. . . ." In 1922, the Treaty was interpreted to mean, inter alia, that where there is no island in the river, the boundary is midway between the banks, and where there is an island, the boundary is midway between the island and the South Carolina shore. Georgia v. South Carolina, 259 U. S. 572. The Special Master has submitted two Reports, making several boundary recommendations. Both States have filed exceptions.


1. The Special Master's determination that the Barnwell Islands are in South Carolina is adopted. Georgia's exception is overruled. South Carolina has established sovereignty over the islands by prescription and acquiescence, as evidenced by its grant of the islands in 1813, and its taxation, policing, and patrolling of the property. Georgia cannot avoid this evidence's effect by contending that it had no reasonable notice of South Carolina's actions. Inaction alone may constitute acquiescence when it continues for a sufficiently long period, @see 40 U. S. 274, and there has been more than inaction on Georgia's part. It was charged with knowing that the Treaty placed all of the Savannah River islands in Georgia, yet, despite the fact that cultivation was readily discernible, there is virtually no record of its taxation of, or other sovereign action over, these lands. A 1955 Court of Appeals' decision in a condemnation proceeding by the Federal Government, which recognized Georgia's sovereignty over the islands, cannot be regarded as fixing the boundary between the States. Pp. 497 U. S. 388-393.

2. The Special Master's determination that the islands emerging in the river after the 1787 Treaty do not affect the boundary line between the States is adopted, and Georgia's exception is overruled. Georgia's suggestion that the boundary in the vicinity of each new island runs between that island and the South Carolina shore would create a regime of continually shifting jurisdiction, by creating a new "northern branch or stream" for even the smallest emerging island no matter how near the South Carolina shoreline, and would frustrate the purpose of the Treaty, which purports to fix the boundary "forever hereafter." Construing the Treaty to avoid sudden boundary changes would be more consistent with this language, and also comports with the simplicity and finality of the Court's 1922 reading of the Treaty and with the respect for settled expectations that generally attends the drawing of interstate boundaries, cf. Virginia v. Tennessee, 148 U. S. 503, 148 U. S. 522-525. Pp. 497 U. S. 394-398.

3. The Special Master's conclusion that Oyster Bed Island is in South Carolina and that the southern side of the Savannah's mouth is Tybee Island while the northern side is an underwater shoal is adopted. Georgia's exception is overruled. Customarily, a boundary would be drawn to an opposing headland. However, due to the uncommon type of river mouth here, Tybee Island has no counterpart of high land on the northern side. Rather, the geographical feature taking its place is the shoal, long recognized as confining the river. To accept Georgia's proposition that the northern side should be the closest South Carolina headlands -- islands that are so distant that they cannot even be said to touch the river -- would result in having Georgia's waters lie directly seaward of South Carolina's coast and waters. Pp. 497 U. S. 398-400.

4. In drawing the boundary line around islands on the South Carolina side of the river's thread, when the midline of the stream encounters an island and must move northward to become the line midway between the island bank and the South Carolina shore, the Special Master erred in invoking a right-angle principle -- i.e., using the line midway between the island and the shore until the island ends and the boundary reverts to the middle of the river, and then using right-angle lines to connect the island-to-bank center line with the bank-to-bank center line by the shortest distance. Georgia's exception is sustained. Georgia's approach -- to use a point "triequidistant" from the South Carolina shore, the island shore, and the Georgia shore, resulting in a boundary that would pass through this point and otherwise be equidistant from the South Carolina shore and the Georgia shore, or island -- is sensible, less artificial, fair to both States, and generally in line with what the Court said in 1922. Pp. 497 U. S. 400-402.

5. The Special Master's determination that additions to Denwill and Horseshoe Shoal be awarded to Georgia is adopted, and South Carolina's exception is overruled. The rapidity of some aspects of dredging and other processes used by the Army Corps of Engineers to improve the river's navigation channel support the Master's recommendation that the changes in the Savannah River were caused primarily by avulsion rather than the natural and gradual process of erosion and accretion. Pp. 497 U. S. 402-405.

Page 497 U. S. 378

6. Since the Special Master's Second Report clarified any confusion that may have existed with regard to how the recommended boundary line affects Bird Island, the boundary dispute as to this island has been eliminated, and South Carolina's exception, initially made, is overruled. P. 497 U. S. 405.

7. The Special Master's determination of the lateral seaward boundary between the States is adopted. His line continues down the river's mouth until it intersects a line, from Tybee Island's most northern point to Hilton Head Island's most southern point, where it proceeds out to sea perpendicularly to that line. His recommendation gives equitable balance and recognition to the so-called equidistant principle, Texas v. Louisiana, 426 U. S. 465, and to the inland boundary between the States, and does so with the least possible offense to any claimed parallel between offshore territory and the coast itself. The States' respective exceptions are overruled. Pp. 497 U. S. 405-408.

Exceptions of South Carolina overruled; Exception of Georgia to Special Master's use of right-angle principle sustained; Other exceptions of Georgia overruled; Special Master's recommendations, as to which no exceptions have been taken or as to which exceptions have been advanced but overruled, are adopted.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, and VIII, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Part IV, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined; with respect to Part V, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and KENNEDY, J., joined except for a portion thereof; with respect to Part VI, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and BRENNAN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined; with respect to Part VII, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined; and with respect to Part IX, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 497 U. S. 410. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 412. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which KENNEDY, J., joined, post, p. 497 U. S. 413. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,joined, post, p. 497 U. S. 413.

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