Friday, August 29, 2014
The Ninth Circuit ruled this week in Lacano Investments v. Balash that state sovereign immunity barred a suit against a state official for his determination that streambeds claimed by the plaintiffs were owned by the State of Alaska. The court said that the relief plaintiffs requested--declaratory relief and an injunction prohibiting the defendants from claiming title to the lands beneath the waterways--was the funcational equivalent of quiet title, a claim that under Idaho v. Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho does not fall within Ex parte Young.
The case arose when an Alaskan official determined pursuant to the federal Submerged Lands Act of 1953 that certain streambeds over which the plaintiffs claimed ownership were in fact owned by the State of Alaska. The plaintiffs said that they owned the streambeds pursuant to a federal land patent granted the year before Alaska became part of the Union. When the official then determined that the streambeds belonged to the state, the plaintiffs sued, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.
Under Ex parte Young, the plaintiffs could sue a state official for injunctive relief and dodge state sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. But the Supreme Court limited Ex parte Young in Coeur d'Alene, holding that the Eleventh Amendment barred a suit that was "the functional equivalent of a quiet title action." That's because that kind of claim "implicate[d] special sovereignty interests"--the historical and legal importance of submerged lands to state sovereignty. The Coeur d'Alene Court explained that "if the Tribe were to prevail, Idaho's sovereign interest in its lands and waters would be affected in a degree fully as intrusive as almost any conceivable retroactive levy upon funds in its Treasury."
The plaintiffs argued that Coeur d'Alene was distinguishable, because the plaintiffs in that case sought to divest the state of its title (and not, as here, the other way around), and because a ruling for the plaintiffs in Coeur d'Alene would have deprived the state of all regulatory power over the property (and not so here). The court didn't bite, however. The court also rejected the plaintiffs' argument that Coeur d'Alene is no longer good law. Instead, the court applied Coeur d'Alene, ruled that the plaintiffs' claim was quiet-title-like, and held that the claim was therefore barred by state sovereignty under the Eleventh Amendment.
The ruling means that the plaintiffs' case is dismissed.