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Oregon ex rel. State Land Bd. v. Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co.

ELR Citation: 7 ELR 20137
Nos. Nos. 75-567, -577, 429 U.S. 363/(U.S., 01/21/1977)

The disputed ownership of the bed of a navigable intrastate river should be decided solely as a matter of state law, since the application of federal common law is required neither by the equal footing doctrine nor by any other principle of federal law. Oregon brought an ejectment action against Corvallis, which had been excavating the disputed part of the Williamette River for at least 40 years without a lease from the state. The Oregon courts, relying on Bonelli Cattle Co. v. Arizona, 4 ELR 20094 (U.S. 1973), required application of federal common law and held that Corvallis owned the portion of land that had become part of the riverbed through avulsive action in 1909. The Court overrules Bonelli Cattle, in which it held that federal common law governed the reemergence of land from the Colorado River following a federal rechanneling project because Arizona's interest in navigation and fisheries was not sufficient to overcome Bonelli's riparian rights in the accreted land. The Court holds that although federal law may fix the initial boundary between land and water at the time of a state's admission to the Union, the state's title to the riverbed is not subject to later defeasance by operation of federal common law. The equal footing doctrine does not supersede state law of land titles. In reviewing the cases, the Court concludes that states' title in lands under navigable waters is absolute in terms of federal land law, which has developed in the context of boundary disputes between states. Similarly, state laws govern the issues relating to riparian lands. Recognizing the usual application of stare decisis to real property cases, the Court nonetheless concludes that Bonelli Cattle was a mistaken expansion of prior property cases.

Justice Marshall, the author of the Bonelli Cattle decision, argues in dissent that the Court decides a question not briefed or argued by the parties and that federal riparian grants now incorporate fixed rather than ambulatory boundaries as a result of this decision. He reads the cases as establishing the proposition that state laws do not override federal common-law benefits to federal grantees of riparian lands, namely, ambulatory boundaries. He further criticizes the majority for ruling on a significant question of federal law without inviting comment by the United States Solicitor General.

Counsel for Petitioner State of Oregon
Lee Johnson, Attorney General
W. Michael Gillette, Solicitor General
Peter S. Herman, Senior Counsel
State Office Building
Salem OR 97310
(503) 378-6002

Counsel for Respondent
Robert Mix
745 N.W. Van Buren
Corvallis OR 97330
(503) 753-4457

Counsel for Amicus Curiae State of California
Evelle J. Younger, Attorney General
Sanford N. Gruskin, Chief Asst. Attorney General
Russell Iungerich
555 Capitol Mall
Sacramento CA 95814
(916) 445-9555