Alaska v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Meramec River

DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)

CITATION: 545 US (2005)
ARGUED: Jan 10, 2005
DECIDED: Jun 06, 2005

Jonathan S. Franklin - Argued the cause for the plaintiff
Jeffrey P. Minear - Argued the cause for the defendant

Facts of the case

Alaska and the United States disputed ownership of two areas of submerged lands - enclaves under the Alexander Archipelago, which are more than three miles from the coast of Alaska or any island, and lands beneath the inland waters of Glacier Bay. Alaska claimed the archipelago waters under the Submerged Lands Act, which entitled states to submerged lands three miles seaward of their coastline and to land beneath inland navigable waters. The dispute over the submerged lands under Glacier Bay centered on the United States' claim that, at the time Alaska gained statehood, those lands were intended for a national monument. A Special Master appointed to deal with the conflict, recommended to the U.S. Supreme Court that the Court side with the United States with respect to both areas. Alaska appealed that decision.


Do specific submerged lands underlying the Alexander Archipelago and Glacier Bay belong to Alaska or the federal government?

Media for Alaska v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 10, 2005 in Alaska v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 06, 2005 in Alaska v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in two cases will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The first case in which I have the opinion for the Court is No.128 original, the State of Alaska versus the United States of America.

This is an original jurisdiction case that requires us to resolve Alaska’s dispute with the United States, and the dispute concerns title to certain submerged lands, some of them very extensive located in southeast Alaska.

After Alaska filed its complaint seeking the declaration that it had title to the submerged lands in dispute, we appointed Professor Gregory E. Maggs to act as Special Master in this matter.

In a detailed report, he has recommended that the Court grant summary judgment to the United States with respect to all the submerged lands at issue.

We set the case for all argument on Alaska’s exceptions to the Special Master’s report and we now overrule each of Alaska’s exceptions.

There are two different areas of submerged lands at issue in the case and each requires a different analysis.

The first area consists of pockets and enclaves of submerged lands underlying waters in and between fringing certain islands in southeastern Alaska and these islands are known as the Alexander Archipelago.

For these submerged lands, the dispositive question is whether the Alexander Archipelago waters qualify as inland waters.

If they do, then Alaska has title to the submerged lands by reason of the presumption of title that states have to submerged lands underlying all inland navigable waters within their boundaries.

Alaska advances two theories under which the Alexander Archipelago waters would qualify as inland waters.

Alaska first argues that they so qualify because they have historically been treated as such.

The Special Master rejected this argument and we rejected it as well, and the analysis requires you to examine the history of the control over these waters, and that turns in large part on whether the United States or before the United States Russia asserted the right to exclude foreign vessels and navigation from these waters.

At best, Alaska’s submissions before this Court established that the United States made one official statement in 1903 in a boundary arbitration describing the Archipelago waters as inland and that the United States seized one foreign vessel in 1924 in a manner arguably consistent with the status of those waters as inland.

These incidents are insufficient to demonstrate the continuous assertion of the right to exclude with the acquiescence of foreign nations.

Alaska’s alternative theory to justify treating the Alexander Archipelago’s waters as inland is that these waters in truth consist of two vast juridical bays which by definition qualify as inland water.

The Special Master rejected this theory and so do we.

Now, they claimed juridical bays would exist only if at a minimum four islands in the Archipelago were deemed to form a constructive peninsula extending from the main land and dividing the Archipelago’s waters in two, and nwo the opinion have maps and exhibits showing the claim.

Even assuming the existence of this peninsula, however, Alaska’s hypothetical bays would still not qualify as juridical bays, and in particular, they do not satisfy the descriptive requirement of being well marked indentations.

They do not possess physical features that would allow a mariner looking at navigational charts that do not depict bay closing lines nonetheless to perceive the bay's limit in order to avoid illegal encroachment into inland waters.

Now, the second area of submerged land of dispute consists of submerged lands beneath Glacier Bay and Glacier Bay is the centerpiece of Glacier Bay National Park.

Glacier Bay is one of the nation’s largest national parks.

It embraces over 3.2 million acres that is an area larger than the state of Connecticut.

It is the world’s largest marine sanctuary and in sorts in one sense a water park.

There is no question that Glacier Bay’s waters are inland.

Here, the controlling question in this suit is whether the United States can rebut Alaska’s presumption of title to the submerged lands underlying these waters.

The Special Master concluded that the United States could rebut Alaska’s presumption of title.

We agree with that conclusion.

In particular, the United States has rebutted Alaska’s presumption of title by demonstrating that the submerged lands beneath Glacier Bay were included within the scope of a federal reservation that existed before Alaska become a state and the Congress at that time of statehood expressed its intent to retain title to these submerged lands.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous with respect to the first area of submerged lands in dispute, the pockets and enclaves of submerged lands between the islands of the Alexander Archipelago.