The Volokh Conspiracy

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Private Landowner in Mississippi Beats State Based on Interpretation of "1784 Spanish Land Grant"


From last week's Mississippi Supreme Court decision in State v. Aldrich (opinion by Justice David Ishee):

This case is a dispute over roughly one acre of Mississippi coastal land. In short, John Aldrich and the State disagree over whether the subject property is Aldrich's or State-owned tideland…. [T]he primary source of conflict is the map the secretary of state published in 1994 that demarcated the boundaries between private property and Public Trust Tidelands.

Via the map, the secretary designated the subject property as State-owned tideland. Aldrich disagreed with the designation however, leading him to challenge the relevant boundary in Harrison County Chancery Court in 1998. The State then filed a counterclaim, alleging it held fee simple title to the property.

Following more than two decades of inactivity and extended bursts of litigation to be detailed below, the chancellor eventually found in Aldrich's favor in 2022, vesting title in him and adjusting the tideland boundary. Throughout the proceedings, the chancellor made five consequential findings, all of which the State labels as error on appeal. Four of them present issues that can be routinely resolved. The outlier, however, poses a unique issue.

Specifically, the chancellor found that a 1784 Spanish land grant, which is the root of Aldrich's deraignment of title, negated the State's claim to fee simple title. This finding carries considerable weight, as it calls into question which lands passed from the federal government to Mississippi upon statehood. This case therefore requires careful historical analysis that balances the interests of private landowners with those of the State. Upon review, however, we find no error and affirm the chancery court's decision….

The 1783 Treaty of Paris, the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo, the 1800 Treaty of St. Ildefonso, and the 1803 Treaty of Paris also come up, as does "[t]he deposition of oyster shells and dredge spoils."