Utah Division of State Lands v. United States

PETITIONER: Utah Division of State Lands
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Craig, Colorado

DOCKET NO.: 85-1772
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 482 US 193 (1987)
ARGUED: Mar 23, 1987
DECIDED: Jun 08, 1987

Dallin W. Jensen - on behalf of petitioner
Edwin S. Kneedler - on behalf of the respondent

Facts of the case


Media for Utah Division of State Lands v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 23, 1987 in Utah Division of State Lands v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We will hear arguments first this morning in No. 85-1772, Utah Division of Lands against the United States, et al.--

Mr. Jensen, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Dallin W. Jensen:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case is here on a writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

It is an equal footing doctrine case and involves the ownership of the bed of Utah Lake.

Utah Lake is the largest fresh water lake in the State of Utah; has a surface area of approximately 150 square miles; is located in Utah County, which is roughly 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Is Provo on the lake?

Dallin W. Jensen:

Yes, not right adjacent, but within a few miles, Your Honor.

Utah bases its claim of title on the equal footing doctrine.

One aspect of that doctrine is that states when they enter the Union receive the beds of the navigable bodies of water within the states.

These lands are held in trust by the United States pending statehood.

Thus, Utah asserts that when it entered the Union on January 4, 1896, it acquired the title to the bed.

The United States, on the other hand, while conceding navigability and admitting that ordinarily Utah would have received title at statehood, asserts that it, in fact, retained title when some seven years prior to statehood the bed was withdrawn and reserved as a reservoir site by the United Geologic Survey.

The Court below held for the United States and ruled that title did not pass to Utah at statehood.

The authority asserted for the 1889 withdrawal of the lake bed is an Act of Congress which was enacted in 1888.

That act authorized the United States Geologic Survey to investigate the arid region of the United States to determine the extent to which it could be redeemed by irrigation.

U.S.G.S. was authorized to select reservoir sites and segregate irrigable land in this arid region.

The Act provides that all lands selected as reservoir sites, canals, ditches, as well as the lands made susceptible of irrigation by such reservoirs, canals, or ditches were reserved as property of the United States and not subject to entry, settlement, or occupation.

It is Utah's position that that act did not fall within the exception that this Court has recognized in order to defeat Utah's title.

As recently as 1981 in Montana v. United States, this Court summarized the rules that govern the exception; held that the United States may sometimes convey the bed of a navigable body of water prior to statehood if it is necessary to perform an international obligation or to satisfy a public exigency.

However, that intention to convey must be clearly and plainly expressed.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Jensen, do you think the public exigency requirement is anything more than a congressional policy?

Do you think that's a constitutional requirement?

Dallin W. Jensen:

I do, Your Honor, in the sense that in order to defeat state title, an exigency must be... must exist.

I think that--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, I would have thought, perhaps, the only thing the Constitution, itself, would require is a public purpose appropriate to the territory for the Federal Government to retain land as against the State.

Dallin W. Jensen:


Our position that it... that it requires more in order to defeat the constitutional entitlement that any appropriate public purpose is not enough, that it--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Where do you find that in the Constitution, the public exigency requirement?

Dallin W. Jensen:

--It is not in the Constitution, itself.