Document Type

Case Note


In Alaska v. United States, the State of Alaska sued the federal government to quiet title to submerged lands underlying the waters of Glacier Bay National Monument (the Monument) and other marine areas of the storied southeastern region of the state. The State invoked the United States Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction over suits between a state and the United States, and was given leave to file a bill of complaint against the United States. After a Special Master appointed by the Court recommended summary judgment be granted for the United States, Alaska filed exceptions and the Court set oral argument. The principal question presented in this case was whether title to the submerged lands had passed to Alaska at statehood under the “equal footing” doctrine and the Submerged Lands Act (SLA), or whether the United States had successfully defeated conveyance of title at that time by a “very plain” showing of its intent to retain title for the United States. Among the counts in the complaint, the issue of title to lands under Glacier Bay proved particularly contentious as it posed the specific question of submerged lands ownership within federal reservations. On this issue, the Court overruled Alaska’s exceptions, holding that the United States held title to the submerged lands of Glacier Bay. This Note first reviews the development of the law of submerged lands ownership and the judicial approach to such questions arising within the context of federal reserves. After examining a prior application of this approach to other areas in Alaska, the Note discusses how the Court has set out to resolve the tension between state and federal claims of ownership by considering both the purposes of the federal reservations at issue and the state’s uses or possible uses. The Note explicates the Court’s test governing disputes over submerged lands in federal reservations and then considers the stated and unstated burdens borne by the parties in these cases. The provocative question illuminated by this case is: what must a party show to successfully claim title to submerged lands within a federal reservation?



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