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Glass v. Goeckel Case Study

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The Case

The actual case sprang from the complaint filed by appellant Joan Glass against defendant couple Richard and Kathleen Goeckel. The Goeckels owned title to a property which extends to the shoreline of Lake Huron in the state of Michigan. Based on their deed, the Goeckels’ property reached up to the high water mark, or the meander line of the said lake. This is because in state of Michigan, any private landowner apparently possesses legal title to the water’s border.

On the other hand, the appellant, Glass, holds title to a property adjacent to the land owned by the Goeckels. Before the case was filed, Joan Glass had a habit of walking along the seashore, but this was strongly opposed by the Goeckel couples who claimed that the former was trespassing on their property. Because she was barred from taking a walk on the shoreline, the 70-year-old Glass was compelled to file a suit against the Goeckels.

The trial court ruled in favor of the sexagenarian woman. The court a quo upheld Glass’s right to stroll along the water’s edge of Lake Huron by virtue of the Great Lakes Submerged Land Act. Dissatisfied with the trial’s court’s decision, the Geockels elevated the case to the Court of Appeals where they obtained a favorable decision. The Court of Appeals disregarded the provisions of the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and its place applied the doctrine of ‘public trust doctrine’ that favors private landowners’ right to utilize the waters, including the submerged portion of the lake extending to the shoreline. Thus, the Goeckels who are the littoral property owners of said boundary are entitled to exclusive right to use (jus utendi) and possess (jus possidendi).

Aggrieved, Glass appealed the Court of Appeals’ decision to the Supreme Court where her rights were upheld. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the Supreme Court states that “no one is barred access to the seashore.” Such a decision was mainly based on the English common law wherein the Supreme Court ruled that lands covering the shoreline and under the high water mark are for public purposes, which must entitle the public unrestricted and unbridled access. The Supreme Court states that this particular boundary is public in their very nature which must be made available to the public.

Thus, the thesis in this case centers on the clash between private rights and public rights. Which of these rights has better legal standing before the courts of law? What then are the possible consequences in ruling in favor of any of these two clashing rights?

Clashing Interests

The question sought to be resolved by the courts in this actual case is of significant interest. This is because 70 percent of Michigan’s water’s edge is already privately owned. Thus, there is a clash between public rights— or jus publicum— and private rights, or otherwise known as jus privatum. These two types of property rights under the law might have effects on public interests if niggardly or negatively applied. Jus privatum only means fee simple ownership of immovable property, although they are possessed under the concept of public trust. Under this concept, the private owner has the following rights to his property: a) right use (jus utendi), right to the fruits of said property (jus fruendi), right to possess (jus possidende), right to sell (dispodendi), and the right to exclude others from interference. Jus publicum, on the other hand, pertains to all navigable or submerged waters, including all lands they cover. Under this concept, ownership remains with the state.

The doctrine of public trust, as already mentioned, has its roots in the English Common law. The doctrine was applied to a long line of cases like the case of Shively v. Bowly (1984). In particular this case, the Supreme Court stated the boundaries and areas of the sea wherein possession and title thereto remain with the King of England. The Supreme Court also defined the jus publicum as— a) lands and waters that are incapable of ordinary and private occupation, improvement and cultivation; b) their primary and natural uses are public in nature(e.g., for commercial, navigation, and maritime purposes).

Going back to the assailed decision of the Court of Appeals, the appellate court of Michigan applied the public trust doctrine, thus upholding the right of the Goeckels to exclude anyone who walks along the shoreline covering their property. The appellate court defined shoreline as the spot where the waters of the lake end.

However in an earlier case of National Audubon v. Superior Court of Alpine County decided in 1983, the Supreme Court defined the novel rationale of the public trust doctrine, wherein it stated, to wit: “The objective of the public trust has evolved in tandem with the changing public perception of the values in uses of waterways.” In fine, the Supreme Court stated that the traditional import of the well-settled jurisprudence should not be used to limit the “public interest in the trust res.”

The Rich vs. the Poor

There is a need to consider the private ownership of shorelines in the state of Michigan. It must be borne in mind that 70 percent of which were privately owned, thus had the Supreme Court upheld the flawed decision of the appellate court, it would have resulted in the discrimination against the poor who would be barred or restricted from gaining access to privately owned shoreline.

In deciding in favor of Ms Glass, the highest court ruled that walking along the shoreline is one of those tolerable sensible activities. Thus, the defendants could not bar the appellant from strolling across their private property because of the need to safeguard the traditional rights of the public. However, the Supreme Court warned that there are activities which cannot be sanctioned by the public rights doctrine like trespassing.

Two members of the Supreme Court— Justices Young and Markman— who dissented contended that the doctrine of public trust covers only underwater lands. Both of them opposed to the idea that said doctrine embraces the right to walk along the shoreline as different from traditional activities— hunting, fishing, or navigation. However, the majority opinion recognized the fact that the levels of the lake alter from time to time. Because of this, majority of the Supreme Court held that the land in question which was not really underwater is within the meaning of public trust doctrine. The two justices also raised concerns over the adopted designation of water’s edge, which can trigger barriers and court cases in the future.

Comparison of the Case

In the aforementioned case of National Audubon Society v. Superior Court of Alpine County, the Supreme Court of California defined jus publicum to consist of non-passable streams of Mono Lake, thereby holding that the state could stop the Department of Water and Power for the Los Angeles from utilizing its lawfully held water rights. This is because such rights, which did not pertain to the traditional rights, were considered as public trust for public and ecological concerns.

This particular court ruling sparked substantial changes in the extent of the doctrine of jus publicum in other states like the state of Oregon. A report issued by the Oregon Department of State Lands, included the term “recreation” in the concept of jus publicum as among those traditional triad of uses, such as commerce, navigation and fisheries. This only means that the right to recreation is now being embraced as part and parcel of public trust in Oregon. Thus, the implication of this is that any person or group of persons can now hold parties and picnics along water edges.

In the case of National Association of Home Builders v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, waterfront property owners were required by the court to allocate a public alleyway along the waterway for the purpose of recreation by virtue of the doctrine of public trust. However, the negative implication of this is that the property owners can be held liable for any injuries incurred by anyone who traverses said pathway.

In the state of Wisconsin, the Supreme Court, in the case of R.W. Docks & Slips v. State of Wisconsin, enlarged the scope of the doctrine of public trust to also incorporate recreation and conservation of scenic beauty.


Apart from the clash of doctrines, the Glass v. Goeckel case sparked debates among legal experts and shoreline property owners. One particular opinion is that the Michigan Supreme Court took an intentionally indistinguishable classification of “ordinary high water mark.” It was argued that the high court modified the long established conservative acumen concerning the capabilities of the public to stroll along privately owned coastlines of the Great Lakes.

Since there are ambiguities in the decision laid down by the Supreme Court of Michigan, is the public now authorized to use motorboats or do sunbathing along privately owned shorelines under the context of private trust? On the part of the private property owners, do they have any right to collect fees or compensation for allowing the public to recreate on their property? These are some of the questions sparked by this controversial case of Glass v. Goeckel. One of the weaknesses of the Supreme Court decision is the fact that the Court failed to provide much discussion about the concept of walking along shorelines. This is because the Court stated that walking is an acceptable occasion of the context of navigability.

There are several incentives that this new rule creates, although, these incentives are only favorable to the public and injurious on the part of private beach owners. In the state of Michigan, it was estimated that over 10 million tourist go to water’s edges and seashores per year. Without a doubt, the Glass case is of significant effect on the part of tourists and the public. However, this situated causes several problems to private owners of properties connecting to shorelines (Bebow, 2004).

In their petition for writ of certiorari, the Goeckels raised the issue that the ruling of the Michigan Supreme Court amounted to taking of private property (Coastal Services, 2006). As such, they argued that they be given just compensation under the Fourteenth Amendment. Indeed, the case is highly favorable to the public but not to private property owners who are compelled by law to lend their shorelines to the former for the purpose of recreation and walking along water edges without receiving any fee or compensation.

Basically, the concerns of those who are opposed to the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling is the fact that it failed to define what constitutes walking or recreation along shorelines. Critics asked whether such activities like taking lunch or taking a short break on a shoreline is a essential element of the concept of walking along the bench established by the Glass case (Bloom, n.d.). Similar to the opinion of Justices Young and Markman, the ruling lay down in the Glass case could spawn litigations in the future.

Meanwhile, on the part of the public which is the apparent beneficiary of this controversial ruling, the Michigan’s Supreme Court used the doctrine of public trust, albeit with expansive application, because the context of walking along seaside has been made part of the traditional concept of navigation, fishing and commerce.

However, it looks like that this particular ruling does not just ignite a future collision between public rights and private rights, as already stated, it could also spark potential litigious analogous cases between the public and the private land owners. This is because some of the ancillary issues related to the case are the following: taking of private property without just compensation, right to privacy, and the right to exclude others from one’s property.


Bebow, J. (2004). A fight over public access to Great Lakes shoreline is playing out in Ohio

and Michigan Courts. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved September 30, 2008, from http://www.clyc.net/pdf_files/beachprivacyruling.pdf

Bloom, C.H. (n.d.). The beach walker case. Attorney Writers. Retrieved September 30, 2008,

from http://www.mlswa.org/legal/LWR_283971_v1_LWR_Attorney_Writes_The_Beach_Walker_Case%5B1%5D.pdf

Coastal Services (2006). Beach walking: Court affirms public’s right to walk Michigan

shoreline. Coastal Services Center. Retrieved September 30, 2008, from http://www.csc.noaa.gov/magazine/2006/04/article2.html

Eggert, D. (2005). ‘Michigan Supreme Court Considers Beach Rights. The Detroit News,

Mar. 10, 2005. Retrieved September 30, 2008, from http://www.detnews.com/2005/metro/0503/10/C07-112832.htm.

Glass v. Goeckel, 473 Mich. 667, 703 NW 2d 58 (2005).

National Audubon Society et al. v. The Superior Court of Alpine County, 33, Supreme Court of California (1983).

National Association of Home Builders of the United States and New Jersey Builders

Association v. State of New Jersey Department of Environment Protection and Robert C. Shinn No. CIV. A. 98 2514 (GEB) (1999). Retrieved September 30, 2008, from http://www.nrpa.com/citation.htm

R.W. Docks & Slips v. State of Wisconsin, 617 N.W.2d 519, 522 (Wis. Ct. App. 2000)

Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. 1 (1984). Retrieved September 30, 2008, from


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