A lawsuit challenging a county's decision on parcel status does not belong in federal court, even though the owners acquired the land through federal patents and acts of Congress, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled. "Federal land patents and acts of Congress do not provide bases for federal question jurisdiction," the unanimous three-judge panel ruled. Edward Virgin Sr. and his family claimed to own 1,240 acres in San Luis Obispo County. The holdings included seven parcels created by patents issued to the Virgins' predecessors-in-interest by the federal government, pursuant to acts of Congress in 1820 and 1862, and six parcels acquired pursuant to four other 19th Century acts of Congress. In 1993, the Virgins filed an application for a lot line adjustment to reconfigure the 13 parcels into eight lots. In April 1995, the San Luis Obispo County Subdivision Review Board denied the application and found the property amounted to only one parcel. The Virgins appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which also denied the application but found that the Virgins' property contained two parcels. The Virgins then sued the county in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, seeking declaratory relief, an injunction and damages. In May 1997, the court concluded the Virgins' property consisted of four parcels and ordered the county to conduct a new hearing. After that hearing, the Board of Supervisors determined that the Virgins owned only four parcels, "which do not include the majority of plaintiffs' ownership of the land patents." Unsatisfied, the Virgins filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief in federal district court in November 1997. A few months later, District Judge Audrey Collins dismissed the case because the federal court lacked jurisdiction. On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, the Virgins argued that two Supreme Court precedents, acts of Congress conferring the patents, and the Supremacy Clause all grant jurisdiction to the federal courts. The Ninth Circuit disagreed and said the Virgins' case belonged in state court. The two Supreme Court cases cited by the Virgins — Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661 (1974), and Packer v. Bird, 137 U.S. 661 (1891) — were not applicable, the court ruled. The Oneida exception is limited to federal interest in the possessory rights of Indian tribes, ruled the Ninth Circuit, which cited then-justice William Rehnquist's concurring opinion: "[T]he grant of a land patent … carries with it no guarantee of continuing federal interest and certainly carries with it no indefinitely redeemable passport into federal court." The Packer case regarded whether a landowner's property extended to the high or low water mark of a stream and "neither the Supreme Court nor the Ninth Circuit has ever invoked Packer to create federal common law conferring federal question jurisdiction," the court ruled. In rejecting the Virgins' acts of Congress argument, the Ninth Circuit cited Shulthis v. McDougal, 225 U.S. 561 (1912), in which the Supreme Court established that "a controversy in respect of lands has never been regarded as presenting a Federal question merely because one of the parties to it has derived his title under an act of Congress." The Supremacy Clause did not apply because there was no federal statute that preempted county ordinance or state law. Moreover, all relevant cases "hold that acts of Congress granting federal land patents are not bases for federal question jurisdiction," the court ruled. The Case: Edward F. Virgin Sr. v. County of San Luis Obispo, No. 98-55557, 00 C.D.O.S. 357, filed January 13, 2000. The Lawyers: For Virgin: William S. Walter, Walter & Bordholdt, (805) 541-6601. For the county: Thomas F. Winfield III, Brown, Winfield & Canzoneri, (213) 687-2100.