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United States v. 32.42 Acres of Land

ELR Citation: 42 ELR 20130
Nos. 10-56568, (9th Cir., 06/14/2012)

The Ninth Circuit held that the United States can extinguish California's public trust rights when exercising its federal power of eminent domain. The case involves 32.42 acres of land that the U.S. Navy has continuously leased from the state since 1949. The parcel is subject to California's public tidelands trust because it was entirely underwater when California joined the Union in 1850. In 2005, the United States sought a fee simple interest in the property and filed a condemnation action. A jury set the amount of just compensation at $2,910,000, and the lower court entered final judgment in 2010. The state's land commission appealed, arguing that California's interest in its public trust rights is as important as the United States' interest in its power of eminent domain. But when state law public trust rights conflict with federal takings law, the Supremacy Clause dictates that federal takings law prevails. Despite the commission's argument to the contrary, neither the equal-footing doctrine nor the public trust doctrine prevents the federal government from taking that interest in the land unencumbered. The United States is therefore entitled to the interest it sought in its complaint in condemnation: full fee simple, free of California's public trust.