Friday, January 9, 2015

Nebraska Supremes Uphold Keystone Law

The Nebraska Supreme Court today upheld the state law delegating authority to the governor to approve the Keystone pipeline and to use eminent domain to access land along the pipeline route. The ruling does not affect fight in Washington, however, where today the House passed a bill to approve the pipeline, and where President Obama promised to veto it.

The Nebraska case arose out of a Nebraska law that delegated to the governor the power to approve the pipeline. (The former governor did so.) Taxpayers sued, arguing that the law violated the state constitution.

Four (of seven) judges agreed. They said that the law violated a state constitutional provision that reserves to the Public Service Commission this kind of decision. That provision says,

There shall be a Public Service Commission . . . . The powers and duties of such commission shall include the regulation of rates, service and general control of common carriers as the Legislature may provide by law. But, in the absence of specific legislation, the commission shall exercise the powers and perform the duties enumerated in this provision.

The four judges wrote that "we have held that the PSC has 'independent legislative, judicial, and executive or administrative powers' over common carriers, which powers are plenary and self-executing." Moreover, "specific legislation" means "specific restrictions," not "general legislation to divest the PSC of its jurisdiction and transfer its powers to another governmental entity besides the legislature." Thus the legislative delegation over Keystone to the governor improperly intruded upon the power of the PSC under the state constitution.

But under another state constitutional provision, four judges aren't enough to rule a law unconstitutional. The state constitution requires a super-majority of five (of seven) judges to rule a law unconstitutional. So even though a majority held the delegation unconstitutional, it's not. That means the law stays in place, the delegation is good, and the governor's action approving Keystone is untouched.

Before ruling on the merits, the court also ruled on taxpayer standing. The same four judges that argued that the delegation was unconstitutional also held that taxpayers had standing. (The other three argued that there was no standing, and that the standing decision also required a super-majority.) The court invoked its "great public concern" exception to the general rule against taxpayer standing. Under that exception, the court can take up a taxpayer case when it involves an issue of "the Legislature's obedience to the fundamental distribution of power in this state": "when a taxpayer claims that the Legislature enacted a Law that undermines the fundamental limitations on government powers under the Nebraska Constitution, this court has full power and the responsibility to address the public rights raised by a challenge to that act." The "great public concern" exception gives the Nebraska courts more leeway in taking up taxpayer cases than the Supreme Court's standing rules under Article III.

 

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