Idaho v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Travis County Jail

DOCKET NO.: 00-189
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 533 US 262 (2001)
ARGUED: Apr 23, 2001
DECIDED: Jun 18, 2001

David C. Frederick - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent United States
Raymond C. Givens - Argued the cause for the respondent Coeur d'Alene Tribe
Steven W. Strack - Boise, Idaho, argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1873, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe agreed to relinquish all claims to its aboriginal lands outside the bounds of a more substantial reservation that U.S. negotiators agreed to set apart for the tribe's exclusive use. The reservation included part of the St. Joe River and virtually all of the Lake Coeur d'Alene. President Grant set the land aside in an 1873 Executive Order. In 1891, Congress ratified agreements in which the Tribe agreed to cede its rights to all land except that within the Executive Order reservation, and the Government promised to compensate the Tribe and agreed to hold the land forever as Indian land and the Tribe agreed to cede the reservation's northern portion, including two-thirds of the lake, for compensation. The United States initiated an action against Idaho to quiet title in the United States, in trust for the Tribe, to the submerged lands within the current reservation. The District Court quieted title in the United States as trustee, and the Tribe as beneficiary, to the bed and banks of the lake and the river within the reservation. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


Does the National Government hold title, in trust for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, to lands underlying portions of Lake Coeur d'Alene and the St. Joe River?

Media for Idaho v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 2001 in Idaho v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 18, 2001 in Idaho v. United States

The opinion of the Court in No. 00-189, Idaho versus United States will also be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

This is my day.

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

It involves a dispute between the United States and the State of Idaho over ownership of submerged lands underlying portions of Lake Coeur d'Alene and the St. Joe River.

The disputed lands are within a vast area that was once inhabited by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians.

In 1873, in the phase of an influx of immigration into that tribal territory, President Grant set aside an exclusive tribal reservation.

During the 1880s, the Tribe and the United States negotiated over the size of that reservation and over the Tribe’s continuing claim to other aboriginal lands.

Although they reached several agreements, before the agreements were ratified by Congress, the State of Idaho was admitted into the Union in 1890.

It was not until eight months later that Congress approved the agreements by which the Tribe ceded aboriginal lands and part of the 1873 reservation in return for compensation and for congressional confirmation of the reservation that remained.

In 1994, the United States sued Idaho to determine ownership of the portion of the lakebed and the riverbed within the Tribe’s current reservation.

The District Court quieted title in favor of the United States as trustee for the Tribe.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

We granted certiorari and in an opinion filed today with the Clerk of the Court, we affirm the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.

Due to the public importance of the navigable waterways, ownership of the land under such waters is closely identified with the sovereign power of government.

A court deciding a question of title to the bed of navigable water must therefore begin with a strong presumption in favor of State’s title and with that presumption, we have looked to Congress’ declarations and intent in order to resolve conflicts over submerged lands that it claimed to have been conveyed or reserved by the United States before statehood.

Via submerged lands beneath navigable waters are located in the tract that National Government has reserved for a particular national purpose.

We asked whether Congress intended to include the submerged lands within the federal reservation, and if so, whether Congress intended to defeat the future State’s title.

This two step test of congressional intent can be satisfied in the context of land reserved by the Executive Branch, if the Executive reservation clearly included submerged lands and Congress recognized the reservation in a way that demonstrates an intent to defeat state title.

Here, Idaho has conceded that the Executive Branch intended the 1873 Executive water reservation to include submerged lands and that by 1888 Congress was on notice of that fact.

Both of those concessions are sound in light of the District Court findings that we found in detail in our opinion.

The manner in which Congress proceeded to deal with the Tribe made it plain that Congress’ object was to obtain tribal interests and modify the extent of the reservation only by tribal consent.

Its object was therefore necessarily to deny Idaho title to any unrelinquished submerged lands within the reservation.

Congress, for example, undertook in an 1889 Act to authorize negotiations with the Tribe for the consensual compensated session of such portions of the reservation as the Tribe would consent to sell.

This and other evidence shows that Congress’ intent was clearly that anything not ceded by the Tribe would remain for the Tribe’s benefit.

An object that is flatly at odds with Idaho’s view that Congress meant to transfer submerged lands to the State in what would have amounted to an active bad faith accomplished by the unspoken operation of law.

Idaho’s position is also at odds with later manifestations of congressional understanding that statehood had not affected title to the submerged lands.

The Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas join.