The equal footing doctrine, also known as equality of the states, is the principle in United States constitutional law that all states admitted to the Union under the Constitution since 1789 enter on equal footing with the 13 states already in the Union at that time. The Constitution grants to Congress the power to admit new states in Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1, which states:
New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
Beginning with the admission of Tennessee in 1796, Congress has included in each state's act of admission a clause providing that it enters the Union "on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever". Before that, when Vermont was admitted in 1791, the act said Vermont was to be "a new and entire member" of the United States.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, a proposal to include the phrase, "new States shall be admitted on the same terms with the original States", was defeated. It was feared that the political power of future new western states would eventually overwhelm that of the established eastern states. Once the new Constitution went into effect, however, Congress admitted Vermont and Kentucky on equal terms and thereafter formalized the condition in its acts of admission for subsequent states, declaring that the new state enters "on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever." Thus the Congress, utilizing the discretion allowed by the framers, adopted a policy of equal status for all newly admitted states. With the growth of states' rights advocacy during the antebellum period, the Supreme Court asserted, in Lessee of Pollard v. Hagan (1845), that the Constitution mandated admission of new states on the basis of equality".
In Coyle v. Smith, 221 U.S. 559 (1911), the Supreme Court ruled that even if Congress mandates a unique limitation be put in a prospective state's constitution, and the state residents agree, this unique mandate is not enforceable.
On December 29, 1910, the state of Oklahoma enacted a statute which removed the state capital from Guthrie to Oklahoma City. W.H. Coyle, owner of large property interests in Guthrie, sued the state of Oklahoma, arguing that the move was performed in violation of the state constitution's acceptance of the terms of the 1906 Oklahoma Enabling Act which mandated that a temporary capital be located in Guthrie until the year 1913.
The Court noted that the power given to Congress by Art. IV, § 3, of the Constitution is to admit new States to this Union, and relates only to such States as are equal to each other in power and dignity and competency to exert the residuum of sovereignty not delegated to the Federal Government.
The Supreme Court held that preventing the state of Oklahoma the right to locate its own seat of government deprived it of powers which all other states of the Union enjoyed, and thus violated the traditional constitutional principle that all new states be admitted "on an equal footing with the original states". As a result, the provision of the enabling act which temporarily restricted Oklahoma's right to determine where its seat of government would be was unconstitutional.
In United States v. Holt State Bank, 270 U.S. 49 (1926), the Supreme Court ruled that the equal footing doctrine applied to water rights. The Supreme Court rejected a claim by the Red Lake Indian Reservation of Minnesota that they had rights to Mud Lake and other navigable waters within the reservation by virtue of the tribe's aboriginal status.
In general, lands underlying navigable waters within a state belong to the state in its sovereign capacity, and may be used and disposed of as it may elect, subject to the paramount power of Congress to control such waters for the purposes of navigation in interstate and foreign commerce. Where the United States, after acquiring the territory and before the creation of the state, has granted rights to land to a third party, rights which otherwise would then pass to the state in virtue of its admission to the Union, remain with the third party.
But disposals by the United States, during the territorial period, of lands under navigable water should not be regarded as intended unless there was a definite declaration by contract, statute, or other similar action.
At the time of Minnesota's admission as a state, Mud Lake and other and much larger navigable waters within her limits were included in the Red Lake Indian Reservation. The Chippewas Tribe ceded to the United States their right of occupancy of the surrounding lands, leaving the Red Lake Reservation as a remainder of their original aboriginal territory. While the area was recognized as a reservation, it was never formally set apart as such.
The State of Minnesota was admitted into the Union in 1858, 11 Stat. 285, c. 31, and, under the constitutional principle of equality among the several states, the title to the bed of Mud Lake then passed to the state if the lake was navigable and if the bed had not already been disposed of by the United States. Navigability does not depend on the particular mode in which such use is or may be had – whether by steamboats, sailing vessels or flatboats – nor on an absence of occasional difficulties in navigation, but on the fact that the stream in its natural and ordinary condition affords a channel for useful commerce.