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New Hampshire v. Maine (1976)

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New Hampshire v. Maine
Seal of the Supreme Court of the United States.png
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued April 19, 1976
New Hampshire v. Maine
The consent decree does not adjust the boundary and, therefore, does not require approval by Congress.
New Hampshire v. Maine, 426 U.S. 363 (1976), was a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States, which had been requested to "locate the lateral marine boundary separating the states between the mouth of Portsmouth Harbor and the entrance to Gosport Harbor in the Isles of Shoals."[1] The Court relied in part on an earlier case, Commonwealth of Virginia v. Tennessee (1893), in addition to the Instate Compact Clause (Article I, § 10, Clause 3) of the United States Constitution, in reaching its verdict.


A major boundary dispute between the then-provinces of New Hampshire and Massachusetts in the early eighteenth century erupted over the southern border for New Hampshire, more specifically the Merrimack River; and since the controversy involved a parcel of land on the Maine portion of the Massachusetts border, the province of Maine was also brought into the dispute. In 1731, representatives selected by the provinces met to work out a compromise. No agreement was met, and New Hampshire appealed to King George II to settle the matter. The King deferred the dispute to the Board of Trade, which, in turn, called upon commissioners from all of the colonies in the New England region to resolve the issue. In 1737, the King then selected 20 members of the Provincial Councils of New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Nova Scotia to serve as these commissioners. Though the commissioners were able to render a decision later that same year, both provinces, unhappy with the outcome, appealed to the King once again. A year later, the King referred the matter to the Lords of the Committee of the Privy Council for Hearing Appeals from the Plantations. The committee called upon the provinces to accept the commission's resolution without alteration.

King George II, as a result, signed a decree in 1740, accepting the recommendation and permanently fixing the Maine-New Hampshire border. While both provinces agreed to the boundary set in the Piscataqua Harbor area, there were differences of opinion in regards to three other areas - the Mouth of Piscataqua River, the middle of the River, and the middle of the harbor. Years later, discord continued over the precise location of the lateral marine boundary separating the states between the mouth of Portsmouth Harbor and the entrance to Gosport Harbor in the Isles of Shoals. A Special Master, an adjunct to a federal court whose duties are to "conduct proceedings and report to the Court" mainly in situations where it has been shown that governmental entities are violating civil rights, was sent to investigate the matter.[2] Though a settlement was agreed upon by both parties, joint motions were filed, and a consent decree was issued against Maine, putting a halt to marine activities in the disputed area. A consent decree, in effect, is a judicial order expressing a voluntary arrangement between consenting parties to a suit. In particular, the agreement served to halt activities alleged by the government to be illegally conducted by a defendant in a case in exchange for an end to the charges. While the Special Master had concluded that the decree was made impermissible as a result of a ruling from the Supreme Court in Vermont v. New York (1974), the Special Master recommended that the case be taken up should the Court conclude otherwise.[3]

The decision

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both parties on April 19th, 1976. After nearly two months deliberation, the Court reached a 6-3 verdict on June 14, 1976, in favor of New Hampshire. The opinion of the Court, delivered by Associate Justice William J. Brennan, reached the following conclusion:

"New Hampshire and Maine are not here adjusting the boundary between them; the boundary was fixed over two centuries ago by the 1740 decree, and the consent decree is directed simply to locating precisely this already existing boundary ... No contention has been made that, under New Hampshire law, legislative approval or disapproval renders the New Hampshire consent ineffective."[1][4]

Majority opinion

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger along with Associate Justices Potter Stewart, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, and William H. Rehnquist concurred with the majority opinion.

The majority disagreed with the Special Master's assessment that the decree was impermissible based on the opinion that it did "not propose a case or controversy in which the Court might apply 'principles of law or equity to the facts, distilled by hearings or stipulations.'"[3] The majority reasoned that circumstances in this instance differed greatly with those in the case of Vermont v. New York (1974). Where as in Vermont v. New York (1974) the decree brought before the Court called for judicial action that, if acted upon, would have been "arbitral, rather than a judicial, in manner," the proposed consent decree in this case "does nothing except record the States' agreement upon the location of the "Mouth of Piscataqua River," "Middle of the River" and "Middle of the Harbour" within the contemplation of the 1740 decree."[1][3] Therefore, the Court determined, the decree was completely permissible.

The Justices did, however, differ with a suggestion made by New Hampshire in which the side argued that acceptance of the consent decree might be a violation of the Interstate Compact Clause (Article I, § 10, Clause 3); that is, unless, the Court determined the validity of the legal principles. Justice Brennan affirmed the Court's earlier stance that Interstate Compacts were strictly limited to arrangements "directed to the formation of any combination tending to the increase of political power in the States, which may encroach upon or interfere with the just supremacy of the United States."[5] Additionally, he stated that the question of whether or not the "establishment of the boundary line may lead or not to the increase of the political power or influence of the States affected and thus encroach or not upon the full and free exercise of Federal authority" ultimately determined if the decree fell within the perimeters of the Compact Clause.[6] Since the decree was directed simply to locating the existing boundary, rather than adjusting it, the order does not fall under the authority of the Compact Clause.

Dissenting opinion

Associate Justice Byron R. White wrote the dissenting opinion; Associate Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens joined.

Justice White found it "unacceptable" that the Court bound the two parties to an agreement wherein "meaning of the words "middle of the river" and related phrases which were used in the 1740 document to describe the Maine-New Hampshire boundaries" are left entirely without definition under the law.[1]

See also

External links

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