Friday, February 24, 2012

PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana

Feb 22: In the U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 10-218. Appealed from the Supreme Court of Montana. The case concerns three rivers [the Missouri River, the Madison River, and the Clark Fork River] which flow through Montana and then beyond its borders. The unanimous Supreme Court said, the question is whether discrete, identifiable segments of these rivers in Montana were non-navigable, as Federal law defines that concept for purposes of determining whether the State acquired title to the riverbeds underlying those segments, when the State entered the Union in 1889. Montana contends that the rivers must be found navigable at the disputed locations. From this premise, the State asserts that in 1889 it gained title to the disputed riverbeds under the "constitutional equal-footing doctrine." Based on its title claims, Montana sought compensation from PPL Montana, LLC, a power company, for its use of the riverbeds for hydroelectric projects. The Montana courts granted summary judgment on title to Montana, awarding it $41 million in rent for the riverbeds for the period from 2000 to 2007 alone. The Supreme Court said, "That judgment must be reversed."
    In its concluding statement on the case the Justices said, "As the litigation history of this case shows, Montana filed its claim for riverbed rent over a century after the first of the dams was built upon the riverbeds. Montana had not sought compensation before then, despite its full awareness of PPL's hydroelectric projects and despite the State's own participation in the projects' federal licensing process. While this Court does not reach the question, it may be that by virtue of the State's sovereignty, neither laches nor estoppel could apply in a strict sense to bar the State's much belated claim. Still, the reliance by PPL and its predecessors in title upon the State's long failure to assert title is some evidence to support the conclusion that the river segments were non-navigable for purposes of the equal-footing doctrine.

    "The Montana Supreme Court's ruling that Montana owns and may charge for use of riverbeds across the State was based upon an infirm legal understanding of this Court's rules of navigability for title under the equal footing doctrine. As the Court said in Brewer-Elliott, 'It is not for a State by courts or legislature, in dealing with the general subject of beds or streams, to adopt a retroactive rule for determining navigability which . . . would enlarge what actually passed to the State, at the time of her admission, under the constitutional rule of equality here invoked.' 260 U. S., at 88."

    Access the complete opinion (click here). Access the merit and extensive amicus briefs in the case (click here). Access the Supreme Court Docket (click here). [#Water, #Energy/Hydro, #SupCt]

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