Among the cases added to the General Litigation Section docket when it adopted alumni of the Marine Resources Section in 1981 were controversies over the maritime limits, and consequential mineral rights, of the 23 coastal States. Typically State boundaries - and mineral rights - extend three nautical miles offshore. More seaward resources are strictly federal. But "three miles from what?" is a question with which innovative counsel have wrestled for decades in a series of cases interpreting the Submerged Lands Act.
The States, of course, have argued for the most seaward possible resolutions. Litigation in these cases is conducted as a Supreme Court Original action, tried before a Special Master appointed by the Court, and ultimately resolved by the Court itself through the application of international law of the sea to facts found by its Special Master. More than 17 such cases have been litigated in the last half century, some continuing for up to 15 years and involving many billions of dollars in mineral receipts from offshore oil and gas production, the protection of antiquities and wildlife, and alternative energy. The Court's decisions have provided a valuable body of law which would not otherwise have been available to the international community.