Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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Peat mining companies sought a Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1311(a), 1362, permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, to discharge material onto wetlands on property that they own and hope to mine. The Corps issued a jurisdictional designation (JD) stating that the property contained “waters of the United States” because its wetlands had a “significant nexus” to the Red River of the North, located 120 miles away. The district court dismissed their appeal for want of jurisdiction, holding that the JD was not a “final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy,” 5 U.S.C. 704. The Eighth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed. The Corps’ approved JD is a final agency action judicially reviewable under the Administrative Procedures Act. An approved JD clearly “mark[s] the consummation” of the Corps’ decision-making on whether particular property contains “waters of the United States.” It is issued after extensive fact-finding regarding the property’s physical and hydrological characteristics and typically remains valid for five years. The Corps describes approved JDs as “final agency action.” The definitive nature of approved JDs gives rise to “direct and appreciable legal consequences.” A “negative” creates a five-year safe harbor from governmental civil enforcement proceedings and limits the potential liability for violating the Act. An “affirmative” JD, like issued here, deprives property owners of the five-year safe harbor. Parties need not await enforcement proceedings before challenging final agency action where such proceedings carry the risk of “serious criminal and civil penalties.” The permitting process is costly and lengthy, and irrelevant to the finality of the approved JD and its suitability for judicial review. View "Army Corps of Eng'rs v. Hawkes Co." on Justia Law

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The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of land in “conservation system units,” to include “any unit in Alaska of the National Park System, National Wildlife Refuge System, National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems, National Trails System, National Wilderness Preservation System, or a National Forest Monument,” 16 U.S.C. 3102(4), plus 18 million acres of state, Native Corporation, and private land. Sturgeon was piloting his hovercraft over the Nation River in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, a conservation system unit managed by the National Park Service. Alaska law permits the use of hovercraft. National Park Service regulations, adopted under 54 U.S.C. 100751(b), do not. Rangers told Sturgeon that hovercraft were prohibited. Sturgeon protested that Park Service regulations did not apply because the river was owned by the state. Sturgeon complied, then filed suit. The Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the Park Service. ANILCA provides: “No lands ... conveyed to the State, to any Native Corporation, or to any private party shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units.” Public land is generally land to which the U.S. holds title.. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that the hovercraft regulation applied to all federal-owned lands and waters administered by the Park Service nationwide, so it did not apply “solely” within the units. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected that reasoning and vacated. ANILCA carves out numerous Alaska-specific exceptions to the Park Service’s general authority over federally managed preservation areas, reflecting that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule. The Court did not determine whether the Nation River qualifies as “public land” under ANILCA or whether the Park Service has authority to regulate Sturgeon’s activities on the Nation River. View "Sturgeon v. Frost" on Justia Law

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In 1854, the Omaha Tribe entered into a treaty with the United States to establish a 300,000-acre reservation and to “cede” and “forever relinquish all right and title to” its remaining land in present-day Nebraska for a fixed price. In 1865, the Tribe entered into another treaty, agreeing to sell land to the government for a fixed sum. In 1872, the Tribe sought to sell more land. Instead of a fixed-sum purchase, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to survey, appraise, and sell tracts of reservation land to settlers and to deposit proceeds with the Treasury for the Tribe’s benefit. Congress took the same approach in 1882 with respect to roughly 50,000 acres of reservation land (22 Stat. 341). Peebles purchased land under the terms of the 1882 Act and established the village of Pender. In 2006, the Tribe sought to subject Pender retailers to tits amended beverage control ordinance pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 1161 (permitting tribes to regulate liquor sales on reservation land and in “Indian country”). Concluding that the 1882 Act did not diminish the Reservation, the district court ruled in favor of the Tribe. The Eighth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed. Only Congress may diminish the boundaries of an Indian reservation, and its intent to do so must be clear. The 1882 Act had none of the common textual indications that express clear intent, but falls into a category of surplus land acts that “merely opened reservation land to settlement.” Although the Tribe has been absent from the disputed territory for more than 120 years, the Court stated that subsequent demographic history is the “least compelling” evidence; the justifiable expectations of non-Indians living on the land cannot alone diminish reservation boundaries. View "Nebraska v. Parker" on Justia Law

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The General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 provides railroad companies “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States,” 43 U.S.C. 934. One such right of way, created in 1908, crosses land that the government conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. That patent stated that the land was granted subject to the right of way, but it did not specify what would occur if the railroad relinquished those rights. A successor railroad abandoned the right of way with federal approval. The government sought a declaration of abandonment and an order quieting its title to the abandoned right of way, including the stretch across the Brandt patent. Brandt argued that the right of way was a mere easement that was extinguished upon abandonment. The district court quieted title in the government. The Tenth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. The right of way was an easement that was terminated by abandonment, leaving Brandt’s land unburdened. The Court noted that that the government had argued the opposite position in an earlier case. In that case, the Court found the 1875 Act’s text “wholly inconsistent” with the grant of a fee interest. An easement disappears when abandoned by its beneficiary. View "Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 1972 Koontz bought 14.9 undeveloped acres. Florida subsequently enacted the 1972 Water Resources Act, requiring a permit with conditions to ensure that construction will not be harm water resources and the 1984 Henderson Wetlands Protection Act, making it illegal to “dredge or fill in, on, or over surface waters” without a wetlands permit. The District with jurisdiction over the Koontz land requires that applicants wishing to build on wetlands offset environmental damage by creating, enhancing, or preserving wetlands elsewhere. Koontz decided to develop 3.7-acres. In 1994 he proposed to raise a section of his land to make it suitable for building and installing a stormwater pond. To mitigate environmental effects, Koontz offered to foreclose development of 11 acres by deeding to the District a conservation easement. The District rejected Koontz’s proposal and indicated that it would approve construction only if he reduced the size of his development and deeded a conservation easement on the larger remaining property or hired contractors to improve District wetlands miles away. Koontz sued under a state law that provides damages for agency action that constitutes a taking without just compensation. The trial court found the District’s actions unlawful under the requirements of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. City of Tigard, that the government may not condition permit approval on the owner’s relinquishment of a portion of his property unless there is a nexus and rough proportionality between the demand and the effects of the proposed use. The court of appeal affirmed, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that a governmental demand for property from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the Nollan/Dolan requirements even when it denies the permit. The Nollan/Dolan standard reflects the danger of governmental coercion in the land-use permitting context while accommodating the legitimate need to offset public costs of development through land use exactions. It makes no difference that the Koontz property was not actually taken. It does not matter that the District might have been able to deny Koontz’s application outright without giving him the option of securing a permit by agreeing to spend money improving public lands. Even a demand for money from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the Nollan/Dolan requirements; there is a direct link between the demand and a specific parcel of real property. The Court rejected arguments that applying Nollan/Dolan scrutiny to money exactions will leave no principled way of distinguishing impermissible land-use exactions from property taxes, stating that its holding “will not work a revolution in land use law or unduly limit the discretion of local authorities to implement sensible land use regulations.” View "Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Mgmt. Dist." on Justia Law

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The congressionally-sanctioned Red River Compact allocates water rights among Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The governed area is divided into five "Reaches," each divided into smaller subbasins. Because Louisiana lacks suitable reservoirs to store water during high flow periods and the upstream states were unwilling to release stored water to benefit the downstream state, Reach II granted control over the water in upstream subbasins 1 through 4 to the states in which each subbasin is located and gives the states equal rights to subbasin 5 waters when the flow is 3,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) or more, "provided no state is entitled to more than 25 percent of the water in excess of 3,000" CFS. States are entitled to continue intrastate water administration. Tarrant is a state agency providing water to north-central Texas. After unsuccessfully attempting to purchase water from Oklahoma and others, Tarrant sought a permit from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) to take surface water from a tributary of the Red River in Oklahoma’s portion of subbasin 5. Knowing that Oklahoma effectively prevents out-of-state applicants from taking or diverting water from within Oklahoma, Tarrant sought to enjoin enforcement of state statutes on grounds that they were preempted by federal law (the Compact) and violated the Commerce Clause by discriminating against interstate commerce in unallocated water. The district court granted summary judgment for the OWRB; the Tenth Circuit affirmed. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. The Compact does not preempt the Oklahoma statutes. Interstate compacts are construed under contract law principles; the Compact, silent on the topic, is ambiguous regarding cross-border rights, so the Court looked to "the well-established principle that States do not easily cede their sovereign powers," the fact that other interstate water compacts have treated cross-border rights explicitly, and the parties’ course of dealing. The Oklahoma statutes do not violate the Commerce Clause; the water is not unallocated. View "Tarrant Reg'l Water Dist. v. Herrmann" on Justia Law

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Arkansas Game and Fish Commission owns and manages the Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, 23,000 acres with multiple hardwood species and used for recreation and hunting. In 1948, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed Clearwater Dam upstream from the Area and adopted the Water Control Manual, setting seasonally varying rates for release of water from the Dam. From 1993-2000, the Corps, at the request of farmers, authorized deviations from the Manual that extended flooding into peak timber growing season. The Commission objected that deviations adversely impacted the Area, and opposed a proposal to make deviations part of the permanent water-release plan. After testing, the Corps abandoned the proposed Manual revision and ceased temporary deviations. The Commission sued, alleging that the deviations caused sustained flooding during growing season and that the cumulative impact of the flooding caused destruction of Area timber and substantial change in the terrain, necessitating costly reclamation. The Claims Court judgment ($5,778,757) in favor of the Commission was reversed by the Federal Circuit, which held that government-induced flooding can support a taking claim only if “permanent or inevitably recurring.” The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. Government-induced flooding of limited duration may be compensable. There is no blanket temporary-flooding exception to Takings Clause jurisprudence and no reason to treat flooding differently than other government intrusions. While the public interests are important, they are not categorically different from interests at stake in other takings cases. When regulation or temporary physical invasion by government interferes with private property, time is a factor in determining the existence of a compensable taking, as are the degree to which the invasion is intended or the foreseeable result of authorized government action, the character of the land, the owner’s “reasonable investment-backed expectations,” and the severity of the interference. View "AR Game & Fish Comm'n v. United States" on Justia Law

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Petitioner requested that the Secretary of the Interior take into trust on its behalf a tract of land known as the Bradley Property, which petitioner intended to use "for gaming purposes." The Secretary took title to the property and respondent subsequently filed suit under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. 500 et seq., asserting that the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), 25 U.S.C. 465, did not authorize the Secretary to acquire the property because petitioner was not a federally recognized tribe when the IRA was enacted in 1934. At issue was whether the United States had sovereign immunity from the suit by virtue of the Quiet Title Act (QTA), 86 Stat. 1176, and whether respondent had prudential standing to challenge the Secretary's acquisition. The Court held that the United States had waived its sovereign immunity from respondent's action under the QTA. The Court also held that respondent had prudential standing to challenge the Secretary's acquisition where respondent's interests came within section 465's regulatory ambit. View "Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak" on Justia Law

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An Indiana statute, the "Barrett Law," Ind. Code 36-9-15(b)(3), authorized Indiana's cities to impose upon benefited owners the cost of sewer improvement projects. The Law also permitted those lot owners to pay either immediately in the form of a lump sum or over time in installments. In 2005, the city of Indianapolis adopted a new assessment and payment method, the "STEP" plan, and it forgave any Barrett Law installments that lot owners had not yet paid. A group of lot owners who had already paid their entire Barrett Law assessment in a lump sum believed that the City should have provided them with equivalent refunds. At issue was whether the City's refusal to do so unconstitutionally discriminated against them in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, Amdt. 14, section 1. The Court held that the City had a rational basis for distinguishing between those lot owners who had already paid their share of project costs and those who had not. Therefore, the Court concluded that there was no equal protection violation. View "Armour v. Indianapolis" on Justia Law