- Case Summary

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Modified: 18th Jun 2001
Wordcount: 728 words


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Legal Case Summary

Summary: Clarifying ownership of submerged lands within the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation.


In 1873, the United States established the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho for the Indigenous Coeur d’Alene Tribe. The reservation originally included a lake, a river, and adjacent submerged lands. Subsequently, the reservation’s borders were diminished through a series of agreements and executive orders. The tribe, however, continuously claimed ownership over the bodies of water and related submerged lands within the reservation boundaries.

In the 1990s, the United States, on behalf of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that the Tribe possesses the exclusive right to use those submerged lands. The state of Idaho opposed, maintaining it held the ownership rights upon achieving statehood under the 'equal footing doctrine'.


The primary issue was whether these submerged lands were implicitly reserved for the tribe by the U.S. Federal Government at the time Idaho achieved statehood, such that while Idaho gained sovereignty over these lands, title was held by the U.S. on behalf of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.

The secondary question revolved around the 'equal footing doctrine', and whether it vested absolute title to submerged lands in the state at the moment of statehood, despite opposing Federal or Indian Tribe claims.


The case is significant in land and water rights jurisprudence, as it clarified that mere statehood does not automatically transfer the title of submerged lands from the federal government to the state if there is clear federal intent to reserve such lands for an Indian tribe. With this ruling, the court tipped the scales slightly more in favor of tribal sovereignty and federal reservation rights over state rights to submerged lands through the 'equal footing doctrine'.

This case has been widely cited and has shaped subsequent cases relating to tribal water rights and statehood, as well as the interpretation of the 'equal footing doctrine'.


The Supreme Court, in 5-4 decision, affirmed that the submerged lands were indeed held in trust by the U.S. for the tribe and were not transferred to Idaho upon statehood. The Court believed the federal intent to reserve the submerged lands for the tribe was clear and unequivocal. The court effectively nuanced the 'equal footing doctrine', stating that while the doctrine in general terms conveys ownership of submerged lands to the states at the time of statehood, it doesn’t do so when the Federal Government made clear its intent to reserve such lands for Indian Tribes before statehood.


  • IDAHO v. UNITED STATES, 533 U.S. 262 (2001).
  • America Law Annual (2001), 'Case Comment - IDAHO v. UNITED STATES: A Remarkable Uncovering Of Ninth-Century Intent

Journalist Brief

In 2001, in a case titled IDAHO v. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a series of bodies of water, including a river, a lake, and submerged lands within Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, belong not to the state but to the indigenous tribe that lives there. This came out of a lawsuit where the U.S., representing the tribe, claimed these lands. Idaho objected, saying they got all such land when they became a state. But the judges, by a slim majority, said that when clear intent is shown by the federal government to reserve such lands for a tribe, statehood doesn’t automatically transfer ownership of the lands to the state. This has had effects on other cases about tribal water rights and how certain laws are interpreted.


What was the key issue in Idaho v. United States?

Answer: The key issue was the ownership of submerged lands within the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation, specifically whether the land was transferred to Idaho upon its statehood or was reserved by the U.S. for the tribe.

What was the outcome of Idaho v. United States?

Answer: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the United States, affirming that the submerged lands within the reservation were reserved for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and were not transferred to Idaho upon statehood.

What has been the impact of Idaho v. United States?

Answer: The case has impacted land and water rights jurisprudence relating to tribal sovereignty and statehood, shaping subsequent cases and the interpretation of legal doctrines like the 'equal footing doctrine'.

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