Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Zoning, Planning & Land Use
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For nearly a century, the Anaconda Copper Smelter contaminated 300 square miles with arsenic and lead. For 35 years, the EPA has worked with the now-closed smelter’s current owner, Atlantic Richfield, to implement a cleanup plan. Landowners sued Atlantic Richfield in state court for common law nuisance, trespass, and strict liability, seeking restoration damages, which Montana law requires to be spent on property rehabilitation. The landowners’ proposed plan exceeds the measures found necessary to protect human health and the environment by EPA. Montana courts rejected an argument that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, 42 U.S.C. 9601, section 113, stripped them of jurisdiction. Section 113 states that no potentially responsible party (PRP) "may undertake any remedial action” at the site without EPA approval and provides federal courts with “exclusive original jurisdiction over all controversies arising under” the Act. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in part. The Act does not strip the Montana courts of jurisdiction over this lawsuit. The common law claims “arise under” Montana law, not under the Act. Section 113(b) deprives state courts of jurisdiction over cases “arising under” the Act while section 113(h) deprives federal courts of jurisdiction over certain “challenges” to remedial actions; section 113(h) does not broaden section 113(b). The Court vacated in part. The landowners are PRPs who need EPA approval to take remedial action. Section 107, the liability section, includes any “owner” of “a facility.” “Facility” is defined to include “any site or area where a hazardous substance has been deposited, stored, disposed of, or placed, or otherwise come to be located.” Because arsenic and lead are hazardous substances that have “come to be located” on the landowners’ properties, the landowners are PRPs. Even “innocent landowners," whose land has been contaminated by another, and who are shielded from liability by section 107(b)(3), may fall within the broad definitions of PRPs in sections 107(a)(1)–(4). Interpreting PRPs to include property owners reflects the objective of a single EPA-led cleanup effort rather than thousands of competing efforts. The EPA policy of not suing innocent owners does not alter the landowners’ status as PRPs. View "Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian" on Justia Law

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Scott Township passed an ordinance requiring that “[a]ll cemeteries . . . be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.” Knick, whose 90-acre rural property has a small family graveyard, was notified that she was violating the ordinance. Knick sought declaratory relief, arguing that the ordinance caused a taking of her property, but did not bring an inverse condemnation action. The Township withdrew the violation notice and stayed enforcement of the ordinance. The state court declined to rule on Knick’s suit. Knick filed a federal action under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the ordinance violated the Takings Clause. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her claim, citing Supreme Court precedent (Williamson County) that property owners must seek just compensation under state law in state court before bringing a federal claim under section 1983. The Supreme Court reversed. A government violates the Takings Clause when it takes property without compensation; a property owner may bring a Fifth Amendment claim under section 1983 at that time. The Court noted that two years after the Williamson County decision, it returned to its traditional understanding of the Fifth Amendment in deciding First English Evangelical Lutheran Church. A property owner acquires a right to compensation immediately upon an uncompensated taking because the taking itself violates the Fifth Amendment. The Court expressly overruled the state-litigation requirement as "poor reasoning" resulting from the circumstances in which the issue reached the Court. The requirement was unworkable in practice because the “preclusion trap” prevented takings plaintiffs from ever bringing their claims in federal court. There are no reliance interests on the state-litigation requirement. If post-taking compensation remedies are available, governments need not fear that federal courts will invalidate their regulations as unconstitutional. View "Knick v. Township of Scott" on Justia Law

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The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of federally-owned land for preservation, creating 10 new national parks, monuments, and preserves (units), 16 U.S.C. 3102(4). In establishing boundaries, Congress followed natural features rather than enclosing only federally-owned lands, sweeping in more than 18 million acres of state, Native, and private land, which could have become subject to many National Park Service rules, 54 U.S.C. 100751 (Organic Act). ANILCA Section 103(c) states that only “public lands,” defined as most federally-owned lands, waters, and associated interests, within any unit’s boundaries are “deemed” part of that unit and that no state, Native, or private lands “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within units." The Service may “acquire such lands,” after which it may administer the land as public lands within units. Sturgeon traveled by hovercraft up the Nation River within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve unit. Park rangers informed him that the Service’s rules (36 CFR 2.17(e)) prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters “located within [a park’s] boundaries.” That regulation, issued under the Service’s Organic Act authority, applies to parks nationwide without regard to the ownership of submerged lands, tidelands, or lowlands. The district court and the Ninth Circuit denied Sturgeon relief. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Nation River is not public land under ANILCA. Running waters cannot be owned; under the Submerged Lands Act, Alaska, not the United States, holds “title to and ownership" of the lands beneath navigable waters, 43 U.S.C. 1311. Even if the United States has an “interest” in the River under the reserved-water-rights doctrine, the River itself would not be “public land.” Section 103(c) exempts non-public lands, including waters, from Park Service regulations, which apply “solely” to public lands within the units. View "Sturgeon v. Frost" on Justia Law

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The St. Croix River, part of the boundary between Wisconsin and Minnesota, is protected under federal, state, and local law. State and local regulations prevent the use or sale of adjacent riverside lots under common ownership as separate building sites unless they have at least one acre of land suitable for development. Petitioners’ parents purchased adjacent Troy, Wisconsin lots separately in the 1960s, and transferred one lot to petitioners in 1994 and the other to petitioners in 1995. Each lot is over one acre, but because of the topography, each has less than one acre suitable for development; common ownership barred their separate sale or development. Petitioners unsuccessfully sought variances, then filed suit, alleging a regulatory taking. The state courts and U.S. Supreme Court rejected the claims, regarding the property as a single unit in assessing the effect of the challenged governmental action. The Court noted the flexibility inherent in regulatory takings jurisprudence. Courts must consider several factors. Wisconsin’s merger provision is a legitimate exercise of state power and the valid merger of the lots under state law informs the reasonable expectation that the lots will be treated as a single property. The lots are contiguous. Their terrain and shape make it reasonable to expect their range of potential uses might be limited. Petitioners could have anticipated regulation of the property, given its location along the river, which was regulated by federal, state, and local law long before they acquired the land. The restriction is mitigated by the benefits of using the property as an integrated whole, allowing increased privacy and recreational space, plus an optimal location for any improvements. This relationship is evident in the lots’ combined valuation. View "Murr v. Wisconsin" on Justia Law

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Sherman paid $2.7 million for land in Chester, New York, then sought approval of his development plan. Years later, he filed a regulatory takings suit. Laroe moved to intervene under FRCP 24(a)(2), which requires a court to permit intervention by a litigant that “claims an interest related to the property or transaction that is the subject of the action, and is so situated that disposing of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede the movant’s ability to protect its interest, unless existing parties adequately represent that interest.” Laroe alleged that it had paid Sherman $2.5 million in relation to the project, that its resulting equitable interest would be impaired if it could not intervene, and that Sherman would not adequately represent its interest. A unanimous Supreme Court held that a litigant seeking to intervene as of right under Rule 24(a)(2) must meet Article III standing requirements if the intervenor seeks relief not requested by a plaintiff. To establish Article III standing, a plaintiff seeking compensatory relief must have suffered an injury-in-fact, that is fairly traceable to the defendant's challenged conduct, and that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. An intervenor-of-right must demonstrate Article III standing when it seeks relief beyond that requested by the plaintiff. The Second Circuit must address, on remand, whether Laroe seeks different relief than Sherman. If Laroe wants only a money judgment of its own running directly against the town, then it seeks damages different from those sought by Sherman and must establish its own standing to intervene. View "Town of Chester v. Laroe Estates, Inc. " on Justia Law

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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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Roswell’s city council held a public hearing to consider T-Mobile’s application to build a cell phone tower on residential property. Council members expressed concerns about the tower’s impact on the area. The council unanimously denied the application. Two days later, the city informed T-Mobile by letter that the application had been denied and that minutes from the hearing would be made available. Detailed minutes were published 26 days later. The district court held that the city, by failing to issue a written decision stating its reasons for denial, had violated the Telecommunications Act, which provides that a locality’s denial “shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record,” 47 U. S. C. 332(c)(7)(B)(iii). The Eleventh Circuit found that the Act’s requirements were satisfied. The Supreme Court reversed. It would be difficult for a reviewing court to determine whether denial was “supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record,” or whether a locality had “unreasonably discriminate[d] among providers of functionally equivalent services,” or regulated siting “on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions,” if localities were not obligated to state reasons for denial. Those reasons need not appear in the denial notice itself, but may be stated with sufficient clarity in some other written record issued essentially contemporaneously with the denial. Because an applicant must decide whether to seek judicial review within 30 days from the date of the denial, the locality make available its written reasons at essentially the same time as it communicates its denial. View "T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell" 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