Public Trust Doctrine “Alive And Well” Says Michigan Supreme Court In Beach – Walking Case

Public Trust Doctrine “Alive And Well” Says Michigan Supreme Court In Beach – Walking Case

The Michigan Supreme Court tipped its cap to beachcombers of the state this summer by ruling that the public has the right to walk along the shores of Michigan’s Great Lakes up to the “ordinary high water mark.” The case of Glass v. Goeckel gained wide attention across the state in recent months as it wound from circuit court, where it started as a neighbor dispute, to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which ruled that property owners had “exclusive use” of the lakeshore, and finally to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The court ruled that,“Because walking along the lakeshore is inherent in the exercise of traditionally protected public rights of fishing, hunting, and navigation, our public trust doctrine permits pedestrian use of our Great Lakes, up to and including the land below the ordinary high water mark.” Slip Op. No. 126409, at 5 (July 29, 2005). The public trust doctrine traces back to the Roman Emperor Justinian and essentially says the state must hold in trust for the public access to certain things common to all such as air, the sea and seashore. A U.S. Supreme Court case from 1892, Illinois Central Railroad Company v. Illinois, found that the public trust doctrine applies to the Great Lakes (including bottomlands of the Great Lakes) as well.

Referring to the public trust doctrine as “alive and well in Michigan,” the court emphasized that private littoral property conveyed by the state is subject to the publics’ right to certain types of access, including walking, to waters of the Great Lakes and lands beneath them that remain under the protection of the state. The court also adopted the State of Wisconsin’s definition of “ordinary high water mark” to “clarify a term long used but little defined in our jurisprudence.”

The Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling in Glass v. Goeckel is a major victory for people and natural resources in the State of Michigan. You can read the Michigan Supreme Court’s Opinion at:



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.