332 U.S. 19 (1947), argued 13–14 Mar. 1947, decided 23 June 1947 by vote of 6 to 2; Black for the Court, Reed and Frankfurter in dissent, Jackson not participating. The United States sued California to determine whether the federal or the state governments owned or had paramount rights in and power over the submerged lands lying between the low-water mark and the three-mile limit. At stake were huge royalties and rights from gas and oil deposits. Until this time the federal government had not claimed ownership, nor had it denied it, but had left control over the submerged coastal lands to the states.
The Court held that the federal government had full power and dominion over the submerged lands, and Justice Hugo Black rejected the states’ claims that the thirteen colonies had separately acquired ownership of the three-mile strip at the time they achieved independence. The federal government had always had dominion over coastal waters, even if it chose not to exercise that power or if it had delegated it to the states.
Justice Felix Frankfurter took the states’ claims of historic ownership more seriously and argued that no evidence existed to show that the Constitution or the states ratifying it had intended the federal government to have dominion, which implies ownership, of the coastal strip.
Several years later Congress reversed the rulings in this and two other offshore oil cases by quit-claiming the coastal strips to the states in the Submerged Lands Act (1953).
Melvin I. Urofsky