Alaska Land Dispute Nixed by 9th Circuit

     (CN) – Landowners cannot sue Alaska over control of the land beneath the “navigable waters” of rivers and streams, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday, affirming the case’s dismissal.
     Lacano Investments, Nowell Avenue Development and individual Ava Eads represented other landowners in suing the state over land patents they claim the federal government gave them long before Alaska entered the union.
     Claiming that the Submerged Lands Act of 1953 exempts any land doled out by the U.S. government prior to Alaska’s statehood in 1959, the plaintiffs said that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources had no right to take control of the portions of their properties that lie beneath navigable waters.
     A federal judge dismissed the action, however, after finding that the court lacked jurisdiction to decide the issue.
     Affirming Thursday, a three-judge panel for the 9th Circuit in Anchorage found that sovereign immunity and the 11th Amendment barred the action.
     “In their complaint, plaintiffs allege they are ‘fee simple owners’ of the streambeds beneath the navigable waters, seek to lift the ‘cloud’ from their properties, and request that a federal court return ‘full use and enjoyment of their property,'” Judge J. Clifford Wallace wrote for the court. “The relief plaintiffs request ‘is close to the functional equivalent of quiet title.’ The lands at issue are streambeds beneath navigable waters, which are ‘lands with a unique status in the law and infused with a public trust.’ If the court were to rule in plaintiffs’ favor, the ‘benefits of ownership and control would shift from the state’ to plaintiffs. Thus, the Eleventh Amendment bars this action.”
     While the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in Idaho v. Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho does not bar all navigable-water ownership actions against the federal government, the issues in this case match the Idaho action exactly and therefore demand the same outcome, the panel found.
     The landowners had argued that Coeur d’Alene was not applicable to their case because, as a sovereign nation, the tribe would have would have taken regulatory power away from Idaho. But the high court had not considered that the primary reason to bar the tribe’s action, Wallace said.
     “We conclude that the identity of plaintiffs is not dispositive in cases that implicate the Coeur d’Alene exception,” the opinion states. “Federal courts lack jurisdiction over all actions where a plaintiff seeks relief that is ‘close to the functional equivalent of quiet title’ over submerged lands that have a ‘unique status in the law’ and which are ‘infused with a public trust.'”

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