Utah Div. of State Lands v. United States

482 U. S. 193

June 8, 1987

The question in this case was who owned the bottom of a lake. Not the water in the lake, but the land beneath it. Under the old colonial rule, every state got the right to sub-water lands. But in 1888, Congress passed a law that gave the United States the power to reserve certain lakebeds for itself. By this law, the land under Utah Lake was reserved the next year. The state of Utah contended that it got title upon statehood in 1896.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court said that Utah, and not the United States, had ownership of the lakebed. O’Connor wrote for the majority, and first noted that the government bears a heavy burden of proof to show that a state is divested of its traditional legal possession. After examining the history of federal land regulation in the 1880s, she concluded that it was far from clear that Congress meant to give the United States irrevocable ownership of submerged lands. Whatever evidence existed in the debates of Congress and in the work of geological surveyors, it wasn’t enough to overcome the presumption of state title to all lakebeds.

White dissented, and was joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens. He found that the geological surveyors of the day were quite clear in asserting title of the lakebed against future state claims. He also showed that subsequent acts of Congress did demonstrate a knowledge of this ownership, rather than the apathy that the majority opinion claimed. White finished by talking about the government’s strong interest in retaining title due to potential compensation it would have to pay to a state for land use.

I’ve been amazed by the amount of times that either Blackmun or Stevens bailed out the more conservatives Justices when one of their number defected. You just don’t see that happen much anymore. As to the ruling itself, I have no clue which side was more legally correct. It’s cases like this that really make you understand why ideological voting would develop on the Supreme Court. Sometimes there isn’t a clear legal answer, and the most salient thing you can latch onto is the identity of the parties. Goodness knows I’m glad the state won, and not the federal government.

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