"Petitioner owns the fee title to property known as the Ballona Lagoon, a narrow body of water connected to Marina del Rey, a manmade harbor located in a part of the city of Los Angeles called Venice. Venice is located on the Pacific Ocean between the Los Angeles International Airport and the city of Santa Monica."
Summa Corp. v. Cal. State Lands Comm'n, 466 U.S. 198, 199-200 (1984).
As you know, when we're in the neighborhood, we like to visit the sites of famous cases. In the past, we've stopped by the sites of the Hadacheck, Kaiser Aetna, Nollan, Dolan, and PruneYard cases.
Here's the latest, the location of a somewhat obscure case (if any Supreme Court case can be called "obscure"), smack dab in the middle of urban Los Angeles. As the above quote from the case notes, Ballona Lagoon lies between Venice Beach and Marina del Rey, and when visiting either of these places, it would be pretty easy to overlook this tucked-away site. Whatever the dispute was, today the site is tranquil and the main features are some very nice homes and a hiking trail. And wetlands, tidelands, and some nature. If Southern California's beaches aren't occupying all of your attention when you are in this part of LA, check it out next time you're nearby.
"The present case arises from a lawsuit brought by respondent city of Los Angeles against petitioner Summa Corp. in state court, in which the city alleged that it held an easement in the Ballona Lagoon for commerce, navigation, and fishing, for the passage of fresh waters to the Venice Canals, and for water recreation. The State of California, joined as a defendant as required by state law, filed a cross-complaint alleging that it had acquired an interest in the lagoon for commerce, navigation, and fishing upon its admission to the Union, that it held this interest in trust for the public, and that it had granted this interest to the city of Los Angeles. The city's complaint indicated that it wanted to dredge the lagoon and make other improvements without having to exercise its power of eminent domain over petitioner's property."
"The trial court ruled in favor of respondents, finding that the lagoon was subject to the public trust easement claimed by the city and the State, who had the right to construct improvements in the lagoon without exercising the power of eminent domain or compensating the landowners. The Supreme Court of California affirmed the ruling of the trial court. City of Los Angeles v. Venice Peninsula Properties, 31 Cal.3d 288, 644 P.2d 792 (1982). In the Supreme Court of California, petitioner asserted that the Ballona Lagoon had never been tideland, that even if it had been tideland, Mexican law imposed no servitude on the fee interest by reason of that fact, and that even if it were tideland and subject to a servitude under Mexican law, such a servitude was forfeited by the failure of the State to assert it in the federal patent proceedings. The Supreme Court of California ruled against petitioner on all three of these grounds. We granted certiorari, 460 U.S. 1036 (1983), and now reverse that judgment, holding that even if it is assumed that the Ballona Lagoon was part of tidelands subject by Mexican law to the servitude described by the Supreme Court of California, the State's claim to such a servitude must have been presented in the federal patent proceeding in order to survive the issue of a fee patent."
Petitioner's title to the lagoon, like all the land in Marina del Rey, dates back to 1839, when the Mexican Governor of California granted to Augustin and Ignacio Machado and Felipe and Tomas Talamantes a property known as the Rancho Ballona. The land comprising the Rancho Ballona became part of the United States following the war between the United States and Mexico, which was formally ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. 9 Stat. 922. Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States undertook to protect the property rights of Mexican landowners, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Art. VIII, 9 Stat. 929, at the same time settlers were moving into California in large numbers to exploit the mineral wealth and other resources of the new territory. Mexican grants encompassed well over 10 million acres in California, and included some of the best land suitable for development. H.R.Rep. No. 1, 33d Cong., 2d Sess., 4-5 (1854).
To fulfill its obligations under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and to provide for an orderly settlement of Mexican land claims, Congress passed the Act of March 3, 1851, setting up a comprehensive claims settlement procedure. Under the terms of the Act, a Board of Land Commissioners was established with the power to decide the rights of "each and every person claiming lands in California by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican government. . . ." Act of Mar. 3, 1851, § 8, ch. 41, 9 Stat. 632. The Board was to decide the validity of any claim according to "the laws, usages, and customs" of Mexico, § 11, while parties before the Board had the right to appeal to the District Court for a de novo determination of their rights, § 9; Grisar v. McDowell, 6 Wall. 363, 73 U. S. 375 (1868), and to appeal to this Court, § 10. Claimants were required to present their claims within two years, however, or have their claims barred. § 13; see Botiller v. Dominguez, supra. The final decree of the Board, or any patent issued under the Act, was also a conclusive adjudication of the rights of the claimant as against the United States, but not against the interests of third parties with superior titles. § 15.
In 1852, the Machados and the Talamantes petitioned the Board for confirmation of their title under the Act. Following a hearing, the petition was granted by the Board, App. 21, and affirmed by the United States District Court on appeal, id. at 22-23.
. . .
The Secretary of the Interior subsequently approved the survey, and in 1873, a patent was issued confirming title in the Rancho Ballona to the original Mexican grantees. Id. at 101-109. Significantly, the federal patent issued to the Machados and Talamantes made no mention of any public trust interest such as the one asserted by California in the present proceedings.
. . .
The question we face is whether a property interest so substantially in derogation of the fee interest patented to petitioner's predecessors can survive the patent proceedings conducted pursuant to the statute implementing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. We think it cannot.
In the end, a unanimous Court upheld private title. Because the owners possessed a federal patent pursuant to the United States' treaty obligations, that was superior to the tidelands trust. This case settled the title for other, similarly-situated properties up and down California.
If California's history, land titles, treaties, and the Supreme Court isn't your thing, the beach is only a block away.