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decided: June 18, 1982.



White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Powell, JJ., joined. Rehnquist, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Stevens and O'connor, JJ., joined, post, p. 288.

Author: White

[ 457 U.S. Page 275]

 JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue before the Court is the ownership of oceanfront land created through accretion to land owned by the United States on the coast of California. The decision turns on whether federal or state law governs the issue.


From the time of California's admission to the Union in 1850, the United States owned the upland on the north side of the entrance channel to Humboldt Bay, Cal. In 1859 and 1871, the Secretary of the Interior ordered that certain of these lands, which fronted on the Pacific Ocean, the channel, and Humboldt Bay be reserved from public sale.*fn1 Since that time the land has been continuously possessed by the United States and used as a Coast Guard Reservation. The Pacific shoreline along the Coast Guard site remained substantially unchanged until near the turn of the century when the United States began construction of two jetties at the entrance to Humboldt Bay.*fn2 The jetty constructed on the north side of the entrance resulted in fairly rapid accretion on the ocean side of the Coast Guard Reservation, so that formerly submerged lands became uplands.*fn3 One hundred and eighty-four

[ 457 U.S. Page 276]

     acres of upland were created by the seaward movement of the ordinary high-water mark. This land, which remains barren save for a watchtower, is the subject of the dispute in this case.

The controversy arose in 1977 when the Coast Guard applied for permission from California to use this land to construct the watchtower.*fn4 At this time it became evident that both California and the United States asserted ownership of the land. The United States eventually built the watchtower without obtaining California's permission.*fn5 Invoking our original jurisdiction, California then filed this suit to

[ 457 U.S. Page 277]

     quiet title to the subject land.*fn6 We granted leave for California to file a bill of complaint. 454 U.S. 809 (1981).

California alleges that upon its admission to the Union on September 9, 1850, Act of Sept. 9, 1850, 9 Stat. 452, and by confirmation in the Submerged Lands Act, 67 Stat. 29, 43 U. S. C. ยง 1301 et seq., California became vested with absolute title to the tidelands and the submerged lands upon which, after construction of the jetties, alluvion was deposited, resulting in formation of the subject land. Because the accretion formed on sovereign state land, California maintains that its law should govern ownership. Under California law, a distinction is drawn between accretive changes to a boundary caused by natural forces and boundary changes caused by the construction of artificial objects. For natural accretive changes, the upland boundary moves seaward as the alluvion is deposited, resulting in a benefit to the upland owner. Los Angeles v. Anderson, 206 Cal. 662, 667, 275 P. 789, 791 (1929). When accretion is caused by construction of artificial works, however, the boundary does not move but becomes fixed at the ordinary high-water mark at the time the artificial influence is introduced. Carpenter v. Santa Monica, 63 Cal. App. 2d 772, 794, 147 P. 2d 964, 975 (1944). It is not disputed that the newly formed land in controversy was created by the construction of the jetty. Therefore, if state law governs, California would prevail.

[ 457 U.S. Page 278]

     By its answer, and supporting memoranda, the United States contends that the formerly submerged lands were never owned by California before passage of the Submerged Lands Act in 1953, and that the disputed land was not granted to California by the Act. The United States also submits that the case is governed by federal rather than state law and that under long-established federal law, accretion, whatever its cause, belongs to the upland owner. Jones v. Johnston, 18 How. 150, 156 (1856); County of St. Clair v. Lovingston, 23 Wall. 46, 66 (1874); Jefferis v. East Omaha Land Co., 134 U.S. 178, 189-193 (1890); Beaver v. United States, 350 F.2d 4, 10-11 (CA9 1965).*fn7 If such federal law controls, title to the deposited land vested in the United States as the accretions formed.

Recognizing that the choice-of-law issue was clearly drawn, California moved for summary judgment and the United States moved for judgment on the pleadings. No essential facts being in dispute, a special master was not appointed and the case was briefed and argued. We conclude that federal law governs the decision in this case and that the land in dispute is owned by the United States.


In Borax Consolidated, Ltd. v. Los Angeles, 296 U.S. 10 (1935), the city filed suit to quiet its title to land claimed to be tideland and to belong to the city by virtue of a grant from the State. The defendant claimed by virtue of a patent from the United States issued after California entered ...

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