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Idaho v. United States

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20725
Nos. No. 00-189, 121 S. Ct. 2135/(U.S., 06/18/2001)

The U.S. Supreme Court holds that the federal government holds title in trust for the Coeur d'Alene Indian Tribe to submerged lands underlying portions of Lake Coeur d'Alene and the St. Joe River in Idaho. The reservation was created by executive order in 1873, but it was never ratified by Congress. In 1890, the Senate passed a bill ratifying 1887 and 1889 agreements between the tribe and the federal government, but while the bill was pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congress passed the Idaho Statehood Act, admitting Idaho to the Union. The 1887 and 1889 agreements were then ratified in 1891.

The Court first notes that despite the strong presumption that states hold title to land under navigable waters within their boundaries, courts must look to Congress' declarations and intent when resolving conflicts over submerged lands claimed to be reserved by the United States before statehood. Moreover, where the executive branch initially reserved the land, the test for determining congressional intent is satisfied when an executive reservation clearly includes submerged lands, and when Congress recognizes that reservation in a way that demonstrates its intent to defeat state title. Here, the Court notes, Idaho conceded that the executive branch intended the 1873 reservation to include submerged lands. The Court then holds that the record demonstrates that Congress recognized the full extent of the executive order reservation and that it intended to bar passage to Idaho of title to the submerged lands at issue. The manner in which Congress dealt with the tribe shows clearly that preservation of the land within the reservation, absent contrary agreement with the tribe, was central to Congress' complementary objectives of dealing with pressures of white settlement and establishing the reservation by permanent legislation. Moreover, although the Idaho Statehood Act was passed eight months prior to the ratifying act, there is no evidence that the act confirming the reservation was delayed for any reason but to assure that the House and Senate bills were identical prior to the House's passage of the Senate's version. Justice David H. Souter delivered the opinion of the Court.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas joined. Chief Justice Rehnquist would hold that Congress' desire to divest an entering state of its sovereign interest in submerged lands must be definitely declared or otherwise made very plain, and that standard has not been met in this case.

Counsel for Petitioner
Steven W. Strack, Deputy Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
Natural Resources Division
State House, Boise ID 83720
(208) 334-2400

Counsel for Respondent
Hank Meshorer
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Souter, J. Joined by O'Connor, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ. Rehnquist, J., dissenting, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ.