Utah v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Bivens Residence

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)

CITATION: 403 US 9 (1971)
ARGUED: Apr 26, 1971
DECIDED: Jun 07, 1971

Facts of the case


Media for Utah v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 26, 1971 in Utah v. United States

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in number 31 original, the State of Utah against the United States.

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

Peter L. Strauss:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This is a case in this Court's original jurisdiction which was brought by the State of Utah under authority granted by the Congress to determine whether the United States or Utah prior to a quitclaim deed given by the United States, had title to the lands lying below the meander line of the Great Salt Lake which is a shallow and very salty body of water of some size lying wholly within the State of Utah in its northern portion.

After a variety of procedural rulings which I need not to remind the Court of.

The case was referred to Special Master, the Honorable J. Cullen Ganey to report to this Court on the issue of the title.

That issue has several aspects and then the proceedings immediately had had, he decided only one of those which is whether the Great Salt Lake was a navigable body of water on the day when Utah became a State, January 4, 1896.

And the parties have fully agreed that if the Great Salt Lake was not navigable on that day, then the United States continued its ownership of all the lands below the meander line and in that situation, further proceedings will eventually be required to determine if the market value of the lands which have subsequently been quickclaimed to Utah, so that Utah may pay that value for the quitclaim deed.

If on the other hand, the Great Salt Lake was navigable on that day in January 1896 then the lake that passed to Utah at that time, instant as part of the operation of the Principle of Equal Footing or Equality Among the States, then is no necessity for Utah to pay for lands which were within the boundaries of the lake as they existed on that day, save possibly for such lands as have been since relicted by the recession of the lake from its shores.

And the issues where the boundaries of the lake were on January 4, 1896 and whether the United States continued entitle or obtain title to such lands as might have relicted after that date, again, is an issue which is not before the Court at this time and which would have to be decided in a subsequent proceeding if the Court should rule for Utah in the present proceedings.

And I might just very briefly remark in that connection, that while the report of the special master is in some minor respect possibly seems to rule on the reliction issue on the one hand in conclusion of law 18 or in the proposed decree to state that if the lake was navigable, Utah obtained titles to all lands within the meander line, I think it is clear and that counsel for Utah will agree that the issues are as I have stated.

The question of reliction remains open for future decision and if the lake was navigable on January 4th, the lands which Utah took at that time were the lands which were under the lake's waters at that time and not the lands which might have happen to be within the meander line which had been drawn at some earlier time.

Potter Stewart:

Does this mean Mr. Strauss, that if Utah should prevail here that the proposed decree of the Special Master would not be proper?

Peter L. Strauss:

Well, I think it's question of construction, indeed whether the decree is inconsistent.

If it is susceptible to a reading then it's inconsistent with what I've stated.

This Court has always followed the practice in past of inviting proposals for decree after original cases and I -- we have been assuming it would do so in this case then we can confront the question at that time.

Now, if I may turn to the issue which is here as I've said, the only issue is whether the Great Salt Lake was navigable on the day that Utah became a State.

There were hearings in Salt Lake City before the Master.

Both oral testimony and numerous documents were produced and on that basis, the Special Master has prepared a lengthy report in which he concludes that the lake is navigable.

And while we dispute that final conclusion, I should make it clear as I think our brief does that on the whole we acknowledge that the report is correct and the statement to the fact strictly speaking of the case we think the Master has done an excellent job and don't mean by arguing legal points here to suggest otherwise.

We accept all the strictly factual findings made in the report and have made exceptions only the findings of law and to two of the findings of fact which in our view, embody essentially mixed questions of law and of fact.

We contend that the lake was not navigable for two reasons.

The first is that the lake presents such obstacles to navigation in its natural state that it could never be used as a channel of useful commerce and trade by water without improvements of an unusual extent being made.

And the second is that even if the lake were navigable, in fact, it lacks any connection in interstate or foreign commerce or trade and for that reason, it should be found not navigable in law.

Taking up the question of navigability in fact again, the parties are largely in agreement of what the underlying law is.

The proper test was first stated by this Court in the Daniel Ball in 10 Wallace and the Court said there that waters are navigable, in fact, when they are used or are susceptible of being used in their ordinary condition as highways for commerce over which trade and travel are or maybe conducted in the customary mode of trade and travel on water.

And I think the Court will find that the principal dispute here is what that word susceptible means.

Perhaps, some argument about the extent to which improvements may occur without departing from the ordinary conditions of waters.

And what the Court meant when it said, that they must be useful as highways for commerce.

The master did not find that the Great Salt Lake was actually in use as a highway for commerce on January 4, 1896.