Tuesday, February 3, 2015
The Nebraska Supreme Court recently issued an opinion concerning the Keystone XL oil pipeline proposed in 2008 by TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P., to carry crude oil products from Canada to the Texas coastline. The opinion is not interesting because of any actual resolution of the highly charged political questions surrounding the pipeline. Rather, the opinion, found at https://supremecourt.nebraska.gov/sites/supremecourt.ne.gov/files/sc/opinions/s14-158.pdf, is interesting because of the highly unusual interplay between jurisdictional standing requirements and constitutional limitations on the authority of the Court to declare legislative action unconstitutional.
Background of the Lawsuit:
TransCanada's original proposal called for the pipeline to pass through Nebraska's Sandhills, which raised concerns about potential environmental damage. At least partly in response to those concerns, Nebraska's Governor in 2011 called a special session of the Nebraska Legislature to discuss enacting siting legislation to specify standards to govern eminent domain power for oil pipelines. The Nebraska Legislature responded in the special session by enacting legislative bills that amended existing Nebraska law regarding approval of proposed pipeline routes crossing Nebraska.
Without detailing all of the legislative procedural history, it suffices to note that the Nebraska Legislature eventually passed a legislative bill that allowed a pipeline carrier to seek approval of a proposed pipeline route from the Governor or to comply with other legislative provisions requiring approval through the Nebraska Public Service Commission. The legislation also included provisions appropriating funds from the state's general fund to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to carry out various duties related to the approval process.
TransCanada eventually submitted for approval a proposed route for the pipeline that would have avoided the Nebraska Sandhills. TransCanada submitted its request through the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and sought approval from the Nebraska Governor, rather than through the Nebraska Public Service Commission. In January 2013, the Nebraska Governor approved the proposed route.
In March 2013, a group of Nebraska landowners filed an operative complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that the legislative bill allowing the Governor, rather than the Nebraska Public Service Commission, to approve a proposed pipeline route was unconstitutional. The taxpayers alleged that the bill violated equal protection, due process, and separation of powers provisions of the Nebraska Constitution; unlawfully delegated to the Nebraska Governor powers exclusively belonging to the Nebraska Public Service Commission and/or to the Nebraska Legislature; and unlawfully allocated taxpayer money to implement unconstitutional laws. In response, the State alleged in part that the taxpayers lacked standing to bring the action.
The trial court concluded that the taxpayers bringing the action had failed to demonstrate that their property was located in the path of the proposed pipeline and that, accordingly, they had failed to establish traditional standing to bring the lawsuit. The court concluded, however, that they had established taxpayer standing and that the challenged legislation was unconstitutional. The State appealed the ruling to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Nebraska Supreme Court's Decision:
The Nebraska Supreme Court's decision in this case did not ultimately resolve the question of whether the underlying legislative bill was constitutional. Rather, the Supreme Court's decision ended up turning on the result of an unusual interplay between state law requirements concerning the Supreme Court's ability to rule legislative action unconstitutional and determinations of standing. In essence, the Court was split on the matter of whether the taxpayers had standing to challenge the legislative bill's constitutionality and, although a majority of the court ruled that there was standing, the majority was not sufficient in number to rule on the constitutionality of the legislation. As a result, because a minority of the Court concluded that there was a lack of standing and refused to consider the constitutionality of the legislation, the Court was unable to issue a ruling one way or the other on the matter.
The first issue that the Nebraska Supreme Court had to resolve was the specific challenge to the taxpayers' standing to bring the suit in the first place. On that issue, a majority of the court concluded that the taxpayers had standing; a minority of three justices disagreed.
The second issue, then, to be addressed was the challenge to the constitutionality of the legislation. It is at that point that the Nebraska Supreme Court's opinion takes some unusual and interesting twists and turns.
Nebraska Constitution article V, section 2, provides in relevant part that "[a] majority of the members [of the Nebraska Supreme Court] sitting shall have authority to pronounce a decision except in cases involving the constitutionality of an act of the Legislature" and that "[n]o legislative act shall be held unconstitutional except by the concurrence of five judges."
The three justices who concluded that the taxpayers lacked standing concluded that their decision with respect to the standing issue prevented them from expressing an opinion, one way or the other, on the constitutionality claim. Their reading of the Nebraska Constitutional provision noted above was that it required at least five members of the Court to (1) conclude that the Court had jurisdiction to hear the case (including that the parties had standing to bring the case) and (2) determine on the merits that the legislative action is unconstitutional.
The four judges and justices who concluded that the taxpayers had standing concluded that the justices who disagreed were "out-voted" on the jurisdictional question of standing and could, as a result, express an opinion on the underlying substantive issue of the constitutionality of the legislation. The majority's reading of the Nebraska Constitutional provision noted above was that it required a supermajority only on the actual issue of constitutionality, not on the preceding issue of jurisdiction.
The unusual result is that, in this case, four members of the Court believed that the Court had jurisdiction to act and expressed an opinion that the underlying legislation was unconstitutional. The remaining three members did not suggest that the legislation was constitutional, but, rather, refused to express an opinion at all, believing that a supermajority was required to even have jurisdiction to consider the merits of the constitutional challenge. So, at the end of the day, three members of the Court concluding that there was a want of jurisdiction were able to preclude any substantive ruling on the merits of the action.