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decided: May 17, 1965.



Black, Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Goldberg; Warren and Clark took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Harlan

[ 381 U.S. Page 142]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The present case requires us to determine the extent of submerged lands granted to the State of California by the Submerged Lands Act of 1953,*fn1 and in particular to declare whether specified bodies of water on the California coast are "inland waters" within the meaning of that Act. A substantial amount of background is necessary to place the issues in perspective.



This is a suit begun in 1945, brought by the United States against California to determine dominion over the submerged lands and mineral rights under the three-mile belt of sea off the coast of California. In 1947 the Court decreed:

"The United States of America is now, and has been at all times pertinent hereto, possessed of paramount rights in, and full dominion and power over, the lands, minerals and other things underlying the Pacific Ocean lying seaward of the ordinary lowwater mark on the coast of California, and outside of the inland waters, extending seaward three nautical miles . . . . The State of California has no title thereto or property interest therein." United States v. California, 332 U.S. 804, 805, Order and Decree.

After the entry of this decree, the United States asked that the lands awarded to it be defined in greater detail in certain areas where there was substantial oil well activity, and which California asserted lay within inland waters. The Court appointed a Special Master,*fn2 and directed him to consider seven specified segments of the

[ 381 U.S. Page 143]

     California coast*fn3 to determine the line of ordinary low water and the outer limit of inland waters. These segments included various bays, and, as the problem evolved, the so-called "overall unit area" consisting of the waters inside a line encompassing the islands off the shore of southern California, some as far as 50 miles out.*fn4 The Special Master's Report, generally favoring the position of the United States, was filed with this Court in November 1952, 344 U.S. 872. He adopted as his criteria for defining inland waters those applied by the United States

[ 381 U.S. Page 144]

     in the conduct of its foreign affairs as of the date of the California decree, October 27, 1947 -- in particular, a rule that only a bay having a closing line across its mouth no more than 10 miles in length and enclosing a sufficient water area to satisfy the so-called Boggs formula*fn5 would be inland water, with the qualification that a bay which had been historically considered inland water would so continue.*fn6 Both parties noted their exceptions to the

[ 381 U.S. Page 145]

     Report, but before any further action was taken, Congress enacted the Submerged Lands Act.

The Submerged Lands Act*fn7 grants to the States "title to and ownership of the lands beneath navigable waters

[ 381 U.S. Page 146]

     within the boundaries of the respective States." § 3 (a). "Boundaries" includes the seaward boundaries of a State "as they existed at the time such State became a member of the Union, or as heretofore approved by the Congress," but subject to the limitation that

"in no event shall the term 'boundaries' . . . be interpreted as extending from the coast line more than three geographical miles into the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean, or more than three marine leagues into the Gulf of Mexico." § 2 (b).

[ 381 U.S. Page 147]

     "Coast line" is then defined as the composite "line of ordinary low water along that portion of the coast which is in direct contact with the open sea and the line marking the seaward limit of inland waters." § 2 (c). For States

[ 381 U.S. Page 148]

     having no previously approved seaward boundaries the Act provides that "any State admitted subsequent to the formation of the Union which has not already done so may extend its seaward boundaries to a line three geographical miles distant from its coast line . . . ." § 4.

Thus the Act effectively grants each State on the Pacific coast all submerged lands shoreward of a line three geographical miles*fn8 from its "coast line," derivatively defined in terms of "the seaward limit of inland waters." "Inland waters" is not defined by the Act.

In a later measure related to the Submerged Lands Act, Congress declared that the United States owned all submerged land in the continental shelf seaward of the lands granted to the States. Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, 67 Stat. 462, 43 U. S. C. § 1331 et seq.

The passage of the Submerged Lands Act marked the beginning of a long halt in the proceedings in this case. Depth of California's coastal waters increases very rapidly, and as of May 22, 1953, the date of enactment, it was impractical to drill for oil except close to the shore. By granting to California the mineral rights in the three-mile belt, the Act vested in California all the interests that were then thought to be important, and no further action was taken on the Special Master's Report. That Report was neither adopted, modified, nor rejected

[ 381 U.S. Page 149]

     by this Court, but was simply allowed to lie dormant. By 1963, however, drilling techniques had improved sufficiently to revitalize the importance of the demarcation line between state and federal submerged lands. The United States filed an amended complaint reviving the Special Master's Report and redescribing the issues as modified by the Submerged Lands Act; both the United States and California filed new exceptions to the Report, and the case is now ready for decision.

The basic contention of the United States is that the Act simply moved the line of demarcation out three miles from the line established by the California decree. Therefore, contends the United States, the Special Master's Report on the line of ordinary low water and the outer limit of inland waters as used in the California decree is just as relevant now as it was before Congress acted, and, with slight modifications, the line drawn by the Special Master should be taken as the "coast line" for purposes of the Submerged Lands Act. California asserts that whereas the Special Master determined inland waters to be those which the United States would have claimed as such for purposes of international relations, the Submerged Lands Act used the term in an entirely different sense to mean those waters which the States historically considered to be inland -- in California's case, those waters which the State considered to be inland at the time it entered the Union. Therefore, according to California, the line drawn in the Special Master's Report was determined under standards wholly foreign to the Submerged Lands Act.

The focal point of this case is the interpretation to be placed on "inland waters" as used in the Act. Since the Act does not define the term, we look to the legislative history.

[ 381 U.S. Page 150]



Two changes relevant for our purposes were made in the bill which became the Submerged Lands Act between the time it was sent to the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and the time of its passage.

(1) As first written, the bill defined inland waters to include

"all estuaries, ports, harbors, bays, channels, straits, historic bays, and sounds, and all other bodies of water which join the open sea."

This definition was removed by the Senate Committee.*fn9

(2) The bill originally contained no limitation on the extent of historic boundaries that could be claimed. The provision limiting the extent of boundary claims to no more than three geographical miles from the coastline on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and three marine leagues on the Gulf of Mexico was added to the bill on the floor of the Senate in the late stages of the debates.*fn10

Removal of the definition for inland waters and the addition of the three-mile limitation in the Pacific, when taken together, unmistakably show that California cannot prevail in its contention that "as used in the Act, Congress intended inland waters to identify those areas which the states always thought were inland waters."*fn11 By deleting the original definition of "inland waters"

[ 381 U.S. Page 151]

     Congress made plain its intent to leave the meaning of the term to be elaborated by the courts, independently of the Submerged Lands Act.

In response to substantial objections made in the hearings to the original bill's broad definition of inland waters on grounds that it would prejudice and limit the position which the United States could take in its future conduct of foreign affairs,*fn12 Senator Cordon, the manager of the bill, recommended and obtained elimination of the definition. The Committee Report which he authored explained:

"The words 'which include all estuaries, ports, harbors, bays, channels, straits, historic bays, and sounds, and all other bodies of water which join the open sea' have been deleted from the reported bill because of the committee's belief that the question of what constitutes inland waters should be left where Congress finds it. The committee is convinced that the definition neither adds nor takes away anything a State may have now in the way of a coast and the lands underneath waters behind it." S. Rep. No. 133, 83d Cong., 1st Sess., 18.*fn13

The committee's understanding that the measure "neither adds nor takes away anything a State may have now in the way of a coast and the lands underneath waters behind it," appears to be an acceptance of "inland waters" as used in the California and prior Court opinions, whatever that usage might have been. Various different concepts of inland waters were asserted during the Senate Hearings, based on such elements as the depth of the water,*fn14 the width of the opening of a coastal indentation,*fn15 the Boggs formula, and the common designation

[ 381 U.S. Page 152]

     of bodies of water as bays, sounds, straits, etc.*fn16 When it became clear that the question had highly technical aspects (see, e. g., n. 5, supra) and was one on which differences would arise, the Senate Committee adopted the expedient solution of leaving the matter just as it had found it, neither accepting nor rejecting any particular rule or formula.*fn17 It intended to leave unaffected the judicial view of inland waters and the judicial responsibility for particularizing it.

Reference to Senator Cordon's request to the Senate Committee for deletion of the objectionable clause confirms that understanding. He said:

"The matter of inland waters is one that has been defined time and time again by the courts, not, I believe, in any one all-inclusive definition, but it was felt [by those who objected to the definition during the hearings] that the use of these words were [ sic ] an attempted legislative definition of the term 'inland waters,' and it was inadvisable for us in this bill, which is a transfer of title, to attempt to make law in the other field of what is or is not inland water.

"The use of the language, it was felt, would probably raise questions that have not been raised, whereas the present definitions are in the decisions and available to the court."

"Senator MALONE. The inland waters had a special master for that particular job, did they not, and that is now under consideration, that is, his report is under consideration by the Supreme Court?

"Senator CORDON. With respect to California, and a portion of California coast; yes." Senate Hearings 1304-1305.

[ 381 U.S. Page 153]

     Shortly thereafter there follows a virtually conclusive statement:

"Senator CORDON. It was not the chairman's view that we were attempting to draw a line delimiting inland waters, but that we were using a term that is well known in the law and is defined by the Court in the California case, for instance, and in the Louisiana case, I assume. That line might still be defined, even though the area may not now have the same legal status as it had before."*fn18 Id., at 1376. (Emphasis added.)

California fastens on a statement made in the Committee Report with regard to the eliminated definition:

"The elimination of the language, in the committee's opinion, is consistent with the philosophy of the Holland bill to place the States in the position in which both they and the Federal Government thought they were for more than a century and a half, and not to create any situations with respect thereto." S. Rep. No. 133, 83d Cong., 1st Sess., 18.

From this California reasons that "inland waters" must have been intended to encompass all waters which the States "thought" were inland waters, for that is the only way in which the Act can now be interpreted to effectuate fully its supposed "philosophy" of granting to the States all submerged lands within their historic boundaries.

If such a view of the bill's purpose is accepted as of the time that the Committee Report was written, there is, nonetheless, no inconsistency whatsoever between that

[ 381 U.S. Page 154]

     purpose and a legislative intent to leave the definition of inland waters to the courts without restriction; at that time the limitation on boundary claims had not yet been incorporated into the Act; thus as the Act was then written, States could have claimed all submerged lands within their historic boundaries, no matter how "inland waters" was defined. The definition would have affected only those States which, not having adequate pre-existing seaward boundaries, chose to extend their boundaries three miles from the coastline pursuant to § 4 of the Act. As stated by Senator Cordon during the Hearings,

"this bill has two approaches to a determination of the area of its application. The first approach is that of the boundaries of the States when they came into the Union; second, an election to any State that has not done so to extend its boundary 3 geographical miles from its present coastline, as that term is described in the present tense in the bill." Senate Hearings 1374.

Only with the adoption of the three-mile limitation on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the three-league limitation in the Gulf of Mexico did the interpretations of historic boundaries and inland waters become operationally related, and any inconsistency thus created between the limitation and the prior philosophy of the Act shows only that, to the extent the limitation would come into play, the philosophy was modified.*fn19 This amendment was one of very few made to the bill as reported by the Senate Committee, and came as the result of continuous criticism throughout the course of the debates that the extent of the grant was indefinite,*fn20 and that coastal States could engage in a "claiming race"*fn21 for submerged lands.

[ 381 U.S. Page 155]

     California points to language stating that adoption of the limitation worked no significant change in the bill. 99 Cong. Rec. 4114-4116 (remarks of Senator Holland). But such statements simply reflect the understanding of the major supporters of the bill that no States other than Texas and Florida (on its Gulf side) had provable claims beyond three miles, and that the claims of those two States did not go beyond three leagues.*fn22 If such were the case, the limitation could indeed be thought to have no effect, for no state boundaries would run afoul of it, and the vast grant of submerged lands up to three miles along the length of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and three leagues, subject to historical proof, in the Gulf of Mexico, would not be impaired. Senator Holland, the author of the bill, proposed the limiting boundary amendment to meet the fears of those Senators who had criticized the indefiniteness of the bill. He explained:

". . . I think the amendment has very little effect. But I am perfectly willing to meet the suggestions of my friends, some of whom have been opponents, and some of whom have been supporters of the joint resolution, to the effect that they would like to have the language more clearly spelled out than it was in the original measure, to the effect that there is no intention whatsoever to grant boundaries beyond 3 geographical miles in either the Atlantic or the Pacific, and that this Congress knows of no possible situation under which greater boundaries are claimed or could be granted in the Gulf of Mexico than 3 leagues; and, in that case, this Congress knows, although this amendment does not indicate it, that

[ 381 U.S. Page 156]

     there are but 2 States affected by that particular situation." 99 Cong. Rec. 4116.

Senator Holland was aware of California's expansive inland water claims, but thought them altogether untenable.

"Mr. HOLLAND. My understanding is that California has no provable case beyond 3 miles from its mainland; and that as to the islands, its provable case would be 3 miles around each of the islands. I so stated in the hearings on this matter.

"Mr. DOUGLAS. That is a consummation devoutly to be desired, but I am not at all satisfied that that is what the Senator's joint resolution would accomplish, because the coastline is not fully and clearly defined.

"Mr. HOLLAND. Under the joint resolution, no such contention could be maintained.

"Mr. DOUGLAS. Is the Senator certain of that?

"Mr. HOLLAND. That is what I believe, and that is what every legal authority I have consulted on the subject believes. Incidentally, the only reason why there was some thought to the contrary was some wording in the original joint resolution, which has been omitted, which would have made the outer boundary of inland waters farther out than that which is now provided by the joint resolution. The joint resolution simply continues the outer boundary of inland waters pursuant to the decisions of the Supreme Court already made. . . .

"The Senator from Florida knows full well that if the United States Supreme Court should change its mind as to what constituted the outer limits of inland waters, and should change it to a sufficient degree,

[ 381 U.S. Page 157]

     it could open up, not only under this joint resolution, but of its own initiative, questions which would reach out much farther than anything we have been talking about here.

"The Senator from Florida believes that the laws, as announced over and over and over again by the Supreme Court, as to the delimitation of inland waters, are sufficiently fixed, definite, and certain so that it would require a complete, cataclysmic change of the Supreme Court's philosophy in that field to afford any hope for an extension of the boundaries of the good State of California so that they would go out beyond the islands as to all areas contained within an outer line. There is no way for us to foreclose the Supreme Court from changing its mind. It might change its mind with reference to inland waters and their delimitation. But failing such change, the Senator from Florida cannot see how, under this joint resolution, there could possibly be any serious question affecting California or any other State." 99 Cong. Rec. 2756-2757.

Senator Holland did not wish to foreclose California from arguing (as it has done both here and before the Special Master) that its waters are inland within the appropriate judicial definition, but it was his opinion that no such definition would permit California's claim to all waters shoreward of their remote islands to prevail. Congress could have defined inland waters as it wished for the purely domestic purposes of the Submerged Lands Act. See United States v. Louisiana, 363 U.S. 1, 30-36. It could have adopted California's theory, or the Special Master's theory, or any other. Instead, it chose to leave the definition of inland waters where it found it -- in the Court's hands. The Act does not reveal a particular intent that courts should broadly interpret "inland waters" so as to restore California to its historic expectations regardless

[ 381 U.S. Page 158]

     of what its expectations might be.*fn23 Indeed, if the Court is to draw any inference from the intent and structure of the Act as to how inland waters should be

[ 381 U.S. Page 159]

     defined, the most plausible inference would be that Congress, in adopting the three-mile limitation, must have intended some base line to be used other than one dependent

[ 381 U.S. Page 160]

     upon each State's subjective concept of its inland waters, for such a limitation would prove to have been none at all, as full acceptance of California's claims in the present case would show.

[ 381 U.S. Page 161]



We turn, then, to determining the judicial definition of "inland waters." It immediately appears that the bulk of cases cited by Congressmen during debates on the Submerged Lands Act for the proposition that inland waters have "been defined time and time again by the courts"

[ 381 U.S. Page 162]

     deal with interior waters such as lakes and rivers, and provide no assistance in classifying bodies of water which join the open sea.*fn24 In this latter context no prior case in this Court has ever precisely defined the term. The 1947 California opinion clearly indicated that "inland waters" was to have an international content since the outer limits of inland waters would determine the Country's international coastline, but the Court did not particularize the definition.*fn25 It was that task which subsequently led to the appointment of the Special Master.

[ 381 U.S. Page 163]

     The Special Master found that there was no internationally accepted definition for inland waters and decided, in those circumstances, that it was the position which the United States took on the question in the conduct of its foreign affairs which should be controlling. He considered the relevant date on which to determine our foreign policy position to be the date of the California decree, October 27, 1947. He therefore rejected the assertion that letters from the State Department written in 1951 and 1952*fn26 declaring the then present policy of the United States were conclusive on the question before him. At the same time that decision required the Special Master to consider a great many foreign policy materials dating back to 1793 in an attempt to discern a consistent thread of United States policy on the definition of inland waters. He ultimately decided that as of 1947 the United States had taken the position that a bay was inland water only if a closing line could be drawn across its mouth less than 10 miles long enclosing a sufficient water area to satisfy the Boggs formula.*fn27

Since the filing of the Special Master's Report the policy of the United States has changed significantly. Indeed it may now be said that there is a settled international rule ...

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