Summa Corporation v. California ex rel. State Lands Commission

PETITIONER: Summa Corporation
RESPONDENT: California ex rel. State Lands Commission
LOCATION: Shopping District

DOCKET NO.: 82-708
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of California

CITATION: 466 US 198 (1984)
ARGUED: Feb 29, 1984
DECIDED: Apr 17, 1984

Louis F. Claiborne - on behalf of the U.S. as amicus curiae
Nancy Alvarado Saggese - on behalf of the respondents
Warren M. Christopher - on behalf of the petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Summa Corporation v. California ex rel. State Lands Commission

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 29, 1984 in Summa Corporation v. California ex rel. State Lands Commission

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in Summa Corporation against State Lands Commission and City of Los Angeles.

Mr. Christopher, I think you may proceed when you are ready.

Warren M. Christopher:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

The fundamental issue before you is whether California obtained from the United States a public trust property interest in Mexican rancho lands which are now held by private parties under an unqualified federal patent.

By a divided vote, the California Supreme Court held that upon its admission to the union, California obtained a public trust property interest.

The California Supreme Court recognized that never before in more than 130 years since California entered the union had this public trust concept been extended to Mexican rancho lands, or indeed to any other lands to which California had never previously had title.

The theory of the California Supreme Court was that Mexico retained a public trust interest when it conveyed this land into private ownership in 1839, that the United States acquired this interest when it annexed California in 1848, and that California succeeded to the interest under the equal footing doctrine when it entered the union in 1850.

Now, this public trust interest carved cut by California is a permanent and pervasive estate in land.

For example, it is so pervasive that the state can enter upon and possess the land.

It enables the state to construct improvements on the property or, on the other hand, to require that the property be held as open space without compensation.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Christopher, is that a holding or a statement of the California Supreme Court that you are quoting from or one of the California appellate courts?

Warren M. Christopher:

Mr. Justice Rehnquist, that is the holding of a line of California cases.

Marx v.... the Marx case cited in my brief is the principal and most recent case.

It begins with the California Fish case in 1913, and it has marched through a long series of cases.

The public trust interest which has been marked out by the California Supreme Court is independent of any exercise of police power, and it based not on the present condition of the property, but upon its historical character when California entered the union.

Thus this property interest is permanent and continues to exist even where the property has been lawfully filled and reclaimed by its owner.

Now, as the Court knows, it was settled in early cases.

One of the foundation cases, Knight versus United States Land Association, settled that California did not get ownership of tidelands within Mexican land grants or ranchos when it entered the union.

The reason for this special treatment of rancho properties or Mexican grant properties was the international duty of the United States under the 1848 Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo.

The rule of these cases is not directly challenged here, but it is indirectly subverted through the carving out of this very extensive public trust property interest in rancho lands.

The question before the Court is whether the Court will permit and authorize the erosion of private rights by denying the owner the most fundamental aspects of ownership under the California Supreme Court public trust doctrine.

In a fundamental sense, this case turns on the meaning of the Act of March 3, 1851, which is known as the Mexican Claims Act.

This Act was the mechanism to carry out the commitment of the United States under the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo, which of course as you know ended the war between the United States and Mexico.

To heal the wounds of that war, the United States made a commitment that the property rights of former Mexican citizens would be inviolably respected, inviolably respected.

The title to the 1851 Act sends an important message.

The title is An Act to Ascertain and Settle Private land Claims in California.

Thus the purpose of the Act was to determine once and for all the validity and scope of land claims in California, to issue patents to those that proved their claims, and to identify the remainder as public domain.

It was a jurisdiction, as this Court has said, to decide rightly or wrongly, and whatever decided is now foreclosed.

This is the line of cases O'Donnell in 303 U.S., earlier Title Insurance, and Thompson Land Company, all cited in my brief.

The crucial point is that between the claimants and the United States the 1851 Act proceedings were tantamount to a quiet title action.