Boundary Disputes: The Law Applied.

Of the earlier ex- amples of suits between states, that between New Jersey and New York1044 is significant for the application of the rule laid down earlier in Chisholm v. Georgia that the Supreme Court may proceed ex parte if a state refuses to appear when duly summoned. The long drawn out litigation between Rhode Island and Massachusetts is of even greater significance for its rulings, after the case had been pending for seven years, that though the Constitution does not extend the judicial power to all controversies between states, yet it does not exclude any,1045 that a boundary dispute is a justiciable and not a political question,1046 and that a prescribed rule of decision is unnecessary in such cases. On the last point, Justice Baldwin stated: “The submission by the sovereigns, or states, to a court of law or equity, of a controversy between them, without prescribing any rule of decision, gives power to decide according to the appropriate law of the case (11 Ves. 294); which depends on the subject-matter, the source and nature of the claims of the parties, and the law which governs them. From the time of such submission, the question ceases to be a political one, to be decided by the sic volo, sic jubeo, of political power; it comes to the court, to be decided by its judgment, legal discretion and solemn consideration of the rules of law appropriate to its nature as a judicial question, depending on the exercise of judicial power; as it is bound to act by known and settled principles of national or municipal jurisprudence, as the case requires.”1047


New Jersey v. New York, 30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 284 (1931). [Back to text]
Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 657, 721 (1838). [Back to text]
37 U.S. at 736–37. [Back to text]
37 U.S. at 737. Chief Justice Taney dissented because of his belief that the issue was not one of property in the soil, but of sovereignty and jurisdiction, and hence political. Id. at 752–53. For different reasons, it should be noted, a suit between private parties respecting soil or jurisdiction of two states, to which neither state is a party, does not come within the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Fowler v. Lindsey, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 411 (1799). For recent boundary cases, see United States v. Maine (Rhode Island and New York Boundary Case), 469 U.S. 504 (1985); United States v. Louisiana (Alabama and Mississippi Boundary Case), 470 U.S. 93 (1985); United States v. Maine, 475 U.S. 89 (1986); Georgia v. South Carolina, 497 U.S. 336 (1990); Mississippi v. Louisiana, 506 U.S. 73 (1992). [Back to text]