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River deep, stakes high

Here’s a good case for all the U.S. history buffs out there: A federal judge has ruled that a dispute between the state of North Carolina and Alcoa will hinge on whether the Yadkin River was deep and wide enough for a vessel to pass in 1789.

The state sought a declaration in Wake County court that roughly 38 miles of submerged riverbed in the Yadkin River is the sole and exclusive property of the state, held in trust for its citizens. Alcoa removed the case to federal court, and the state moved to remand the case back to state court.

U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle denied the motion, saying that when the American Revolution took place, each state became sovereign and gained the absolute right to all their navigable waters and the soils under them. However, questions of whether the river was navigable are controlled by federal law, and thus the case was properly in federal court.

Interestingly, even though the matter dates back more than 220 years, it shouldn’t be too difficult to resolve. Apparently there’s quite a bit of surviving evidence that indicates the river was not navigable back in those days, hence the state’s attempt to rely on an 1885 law declaring the Yadkin and Great Pee Dee rivers public highways.

Boyle rejected that argument, however, citing a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that states “may [not] adopt a retroactive rule for determining navigability which would [serve] to enlarge what actually passed to the State.” (North Carolina tried to argue that the decision didn’t apply to the original 13 colonies.

With the courts handling so many cases these days that hinge on cutting-edge technological advancements, there’s a quaint charm in a court having to decide how navigable a river was 100 years before steamboats.


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