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Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Mississippi

ELR Citation: 18 ELR 20483
Nos. No. 86-870, 484 U.S. 469/(U.S., 02/23/1988)

In a 5-3 decision, the Court rules that state ownership of lands subject to the public trust doctrine includes nonnavigable tidal lands. Petitioners brought a quiet title action to prevent Mississippi from issuing oil and gas leases for lands several miles north of Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Although the waters over these lands are not navigable, they are adjacent to a navigable stream that flows into the Gulf and are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide. The Court holds that the Mississippi Supreme Court correctly held that title to the tidal lands in question passed to the state upon its entrance into the Union. Case law relied upon by petitioners for the proposition that the British Crown did not own the soil under any nonnavigable waters is inapposite, since those cases did not deal with tidal, nonnavigable waters. Moreover, the historical state of English law does not change this Court's consistent rulings that lands beneath tidal waters passed to the states upon their admission into the Union. Contrary to petitioners' assertions, this Court's development of the public trust doctrine does not indicate that navigability, rather than tidal influence, is the test for the public trust interest in tidelands. Although early cases extended admiralty jurisdiction and the public trust doctrine to navigable freshwaters and the lands beneath them, they did not simultaneously withdraw tidal lands from public trust coverage. Petitioners concede that the states own seashore tidelands, and the difference between those tidelands and the tidelands at issue in this case, is only a matter of degree. The Court rejects petitioners' arguments that they have developed reasonable expectations based upon their record title to the lands, since Mississippi law appears to have consistently held that the public trust extends to tidal lands.

The dissent would hold that the public trust extends only to land underlying navigable bodies of water, disagreeing with the majority's characterization of the Court's public trust precedent. Since the primary purpose of the public trust is to protect commerce, the scope of the trust should parallel the scope of federal admiralty jurisdiction, for which the Court adheres to the navigability test. Moreover, Mississippi showed no interest in the disputed land from the time it became a state in 1817 until the 1970s; its interest now is to lease the land for minerals, rather than to protect traditional trust uses.

Counsel for Petitioner
Eugene Gressman
Seton Hall University School of Law
1111 Raymond Blvd., Room 210, Newark NJ 07102
(201) 642-8844

Counsel for Respondent
Robert Spencer, Spec. Ass't Attorney General
Box 220, Jackson MS 39205-0220
(601) 359-3680