June 21, 2011
Mulvaney's take on SCOTUS cert grant for PPL Montana v. State of Montana
I'm excited to post this guest blog from Professor Timothy Mulvaney, a land use prof from Texas Wesleyan School of Law in Fort Worth. He's written extensively about judicial takings and exactions, and proivdes this timely and interesting post about yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court cert grant. This case has been somewhat under the radar, but could end up being very important. Thanks to Tim for the early and interesting analysis-- Matt Festa
Thank you very much for the opportunity to guest blog during this important week at the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is understandable that today’s headlines regarding the Supreme Court are devoted to several landmark decisions released yesterday, including rulings rejecting class certification in Wal-Mart v. Dukes and holding that the Clean Air Act displaces federal common law nuisance claims when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions in AEP v. Connecticut. But in addition to these major holdings, the Supreme Court also took the noteworthy step of granting certiorari in PPL Montana, LLC v. State of Montana. This case could have important implications for property, land use, natural resources, and environmental law.
In 2010, the Montana Supreme Court held that the State of Montana owns the beds of the Missouri, Madison, and Clarke Fork Rivers as an incident of state sovereignty. This ruling confirmed that PPL Montana is required to pay over $40 million in back-rent, as well as yet-to-be-determined future rent, for use of the rivers to generate hydroelectric power. PPL Montana claims that the riverbeds are private property, such that no rent to (or approval from) the State is necessary to conduct their operations. To determine whether these rivers are held in trust by the State or rather in private ownership turns on whether the rivers are considered “navigable.” The U.S. Supreme Court has defined waterways as “navigable” in the context of such a title dispute if the rivers were “used, or [were] susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce, over which trade and travel [were] or may be conducted” when the relevant State was admitted to the Union.
In finding that all three rivers at issue met this “navigability for title” test when Montana entered statehood in 1889, the Montana Supreme Court cited to a litany of historical evidence, including the centuries-old journals of Lewis and Clark. As today’s brief AP story notes, PPL Montana disagreed, pointing “to accounts of the [Lewis and Clark] expedition’s arduous portages of canoes and supplies around waterfalls to argue that the contested stretches of water were not navigable.” The Montana Supreme Court’s opinion also drew PPL Montana’s ire by considering what the company alleges are flawed contemporary studies, as well as recent recreational uses of certain stretches of the rivers, to support the finding that the rivers are held in total by the state in trust for present and future generations.
One of the foremost experts in natural resources and water law, Professor Rick Frank, notes on Legal Planet that the U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed navigability in the context of state public trust claims for several decades. How the Supreme Court interprets its time-honored test and identifies what evidence is relevant in its application could have major ramifications for thousands of miles of inland lakes and waterways nationwide.
Yet there may be another issue lurking under the surface. In seeking the Supreme Court’s review, PPL Montana and several of its amici sought to frame the Montana Supreme Court’s decision as a “judicial taking.” You will recall that in the 2010 case of Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Supreme Court left the existence and scope of a judicial takings doctrine in a state of flux. To cull from a law review article I authored on Stop the Beach this past winter:
A four-Justice plurality endorsed a novel theory that would make the Takings Clause applicable to a wide collection of state court interpretations of state property law. Writing for the plurality, Justice Scalia declared that a state court’s opinion finding that an “established” property right “no longer exists” may amount to an unconstitutional taking. … Justice Kennedy, joined by Justice Sotomayor, wrote separately to suggest that only when the Constitution’s Due Process Clause proves “somehow inadequate” to protect landowners from the judicial elimination of their existing property rights should the questions surrounding the need for and scope of a judicial takings doctrine be addressed. … Though generally expressing grave doubts about the plurality’s judicial takings standard, Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, concurred in the judgment but found the issue of judicial takings “better left for another day.” [Justice Stevens recused himself.]
In its petition for certiorari, PPL Montana cited to Stop the Beach in asserting that, “[b]ecause [the Montana Supreme Court was] the operative force behind this land transfer [from private ownership to state ownership], it remains to be seen whether property owners in general have a Takings Claim or due process objection to [such a] land grab.” In support of PPL Montana’s petition, the Cato Institute joined the Montana Farm Bureau Federation in contending that the Montana Supreme Court adopted a retroactive rule that destroyed title already accrued in violation of the Takings Clause, calling the Court’s ruling a “thinly-disguised judicial taking.” For its part, the State of Montana maintained that nothing in the Montana Supreme Court’s decision contravened established property law, for PPL Montana’s “deeds and pleadings show it has no riverbed property to take” and the State “has claimed and received compensation for uses of navigable riverbeds for decades.”
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. Supreme Court will address the judicial takings question when it takes up PPL Montana, LLC v. State of Montana in the coming year. The certiorari stage documents are available here. It is anticipated that the parties and their amici will brief the case this summer, with oral argument likely to occur in the winter. Stay tuned to the Land Use Prof Blog for updated information.
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