United States v. Alaska, 503 U.S. 569 (1992)

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on bill of complaint

No. 118, Orig. Argued February 24, 1992—Decided April 21, 1992

Pursuant to, inter alia, 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 (RHA), the Secretary of the Army, through the Army Corps of Engineers, granted Nome, Alaska, a federal permit to build port facilities extending into Norton Sound. The permit's issuance was conditioned on the submission by Alaska of a disclaimer of rights to additional submerged lands that it could claim within its boundary if the facilities' construction moved the coastline seaward. However, the disclaimer also provided that Alaska reserved its right to the accreted submerged lands pending a decision by a court of competent jurisdiction that federal officials lacked the authority to compel a disclaimer of sovereignty as a condition of permit issuance. After the facilities were constructed, the United States Department of the Interior proposed a lease sale for minerals in Norton Sound. Alleging that the proposal involved lands subject to its disclaimer, Alaska announced its intention to file suit challenging the Corps' authority to require the disclaimer. The United States was granted leave of this Court to commence this action, and both parties have filed motions for summary judgment.

Held: The Secretary of the Army acted within his discretion in conditioning approval of the Nome port facilities on a disclaimer by Alaska of a change in the federal-state boundary that the project might cause. Pp. 575-593. (a) This Court's review of the Corps' construction of a statute that it administers involves an examination of 10's language, this Court's decisions interpreting 10, and the Corps' longstanding construction in fulfilling Congress' mandate. On its face, 10—which prohibits the building of any structure in navigable waters of the United States "except on plans recommended by the Chief of Engineers and authorized by the Secretary of the Army"—appears to give the Secretary unlimited discretion to grant or deny a permit for construction of a structure such as the one at issue. While both the RHA's legislative history and 10's statutory antecedents offer little insight into Congress' intent, the idea of delegating authority to the Secretary was well established in the immediate precursors to the RHA. This Court's decisions also support the view that 10 should be construed broadly, see, e. g., United States ex rel. Greathouse v. Dern, 289 U. S. 352, to authorize consideration of factors other than navigation during the permit review process, cf.


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