United States v. California

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: California
LOCATION: Channel Islands National Park

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)

CITATION: 381 US 139 (1965)
ARGUED: Dec 07, 1964 / Dec 08, 1964
DECIDED: May 17, 1965

Facts of the case

In United States v. California (1947), the Court ruled that the federal government owned rights to the undersea land off the California coast, an area with rich oil and mineral deposits. The Court held that California's rights were limited to low and inland waters and appointed a special master to better define the limits of California's land rights. In a report filed in 1952, the special master based his definition on the one used by the federal government in foreign relations. In 1953, before the Court considered the special master's report, Congress passed the Submerged Land Act, granting to the states' ownership of underwater land within their borders "as they existed at the time such State became a member of the Union." The act limited states' seaward rights, however, to no more than three miles from the coastline. The act also acknowledged states' ownership of land beneath inland waters. The act gave no specific definition of either "coastline" or "inland waters" and did not address bodies of water adjoining the sea, such as bays.


Do rights to the undersea land off the California coast beyond the three-mile limit described in the Submerged Land Act, particularly in the case of bodies of water adjoining the ocean, belong to California or to the federal government?

Media for United States v. California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 07, 1964 in United States v. California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 08, 1964 in United States v. California

Earl Warren:

The United States of America, Plaintiff, versus the State of California.

Mr. Solicitor General.

Archibald Cox:

Mr. Justice Black, may it please the Court.

At the conclusion of yesterday's session, Justice Black asked several questions relating to the power of the United States to change the boundaries of the State and relating to the relationship, if any, between the political boundaries of the State and inland waters and its ownership of property.

And I thought it would be helpful since some of those perhaps go to assumptions that lay behind what I was saying that I failed make articulate that I would begin this morning but seeking to answer what I understand to be those questions.

But first with the respect to the constitutional power of the United States, once a state is admitted as a member of the Union then its political boundaries cannot be changed by Congress without the consent of the State except conceivably by some exercise as a treaty making power in which we were forced to see property.

That was decided or stated in Mississippi against Louisiana, 202 U.S. 1 at 40, I was then speaking of political boundary.

Second, Congress may not take the property with which a state enters the Union except perhaps by the exercise of the right of eminent domain.

Third, we assume that Congress may not be what children use to call Indian givers.

That is if it yields property to the State with no strings attached.

Now, we take it but it may not take that property back except by an exercise of the power of eminent domain.

It seems to us that none of those questions are involved in this case for at least three reasons.

But first, we say and I will elaborate fine a little later, that California's political boundaries never did include and do not include the areas that are in dispute.

And second, we say that California's inland waters never included at the areas in dispute even if those areas were within her political boundaries.

In other words, inland waters are the outer limit of inland waters and coast line are not synonyms for political boundaries.

And Pollard and Hagan, the right, property right that Pollard and Hagan carried to the property under inland waters did not carry a right to the property under the sea all the way out to the political boundaries.

Consequently, boundaries as I say do not necessarily coincide with coast line.

They may coincide.

The boundaries may go beyond the coast line and it is possible that the boundaries limit where the coast line may be but that is not involved in this case.

Now, I suggest that those problems are necessarily true.

Both ended the decision in the United States against California and under the Submerged Lands Act, but first as United States v. California.

In that case, California's political boundaries unquestionably extended three miles beyond the coast line.

Indeed, California's argument as stated by the Court was that her political boundaries as she was admitted to the Union extended three miles from the coast line and the Court held that nevertheless the United States had the paramount property rights in the three-mile strip and so that it cannot thought, have thought of the two as coinciding.

In the Louisiana case that followed the California case, the Court said, the matter of state boundaries has no bearing on the present problem because -- and indeed in the Texas case where it was argued with Texas came in to the Union with political boundaries as the result of a treaty going beyond the three-mile limit.

Now, the Court said, even if they did, Texas surrendered whatever ownership she had had out to her political boundary and came in with any rights to the property under the sea limited to the three-mile strip.

And I think that the second Texas and Florida cases extending the grant holding that the grant under the Submerged Lands Act went out to the political boundaries of those states as they were admitted up to three -- up to the limit.

Certainly, it did not hold that the inland waters of those states went out to the original political boundaries.

Indeed, the decree defines it all in terms of a distance from inland waters.

So again, they couldn't have been taken to be co-extensive.

If you look at the Submerged Lands Act, again, it seems to me entirely clear that Congress assumed that the political boundaries and the coast line, which of course includes the outer limit of inland water, could be very different things that these were not identical concept and I notice last night, the number of points which make that very plain.