Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. US: Intentional Flooding & Judicial Power

A week or so ago, Ronald Rotunda wrote a brief piece looking at Supreme Court cases in which the Solicitor General’s position had been unanimously rejected by the Court. The Solicitor General represents the Government in Supreme Court litigation. It’s an interesting list, and well worth reading through. What caught my eye, however, was that the first case he describes is the takings case, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. United States decided by the US Supreme Court in 2012 (568 US __ (2012); see the page here for more details about the case. My citations below reference the Supreme Court’s Slip Opinion).

The case involved a forested area owned by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission that was periodically flooded by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The repeated, temporary flooding damaged the trees and affected peak timber growing season. The Arkansas Commission filed a takings claim against the US Army Corps of Engineers. They claimed that the area had been damaged permanently by the Corps’ program of intentional flooding, and therefore the Commission was due compensation for their losses.

In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg points out that not only did the flooding adversely effect the growing season for the valuable trees; it changed the character of the terrain substantially. Those changes, she said, caused the state to engage in costly reclamation measures. While the case was remanded for further review (including investigating some claims made by the Government that had not been fully contemplated by lower courts), Justice Ginsburg made a very clear point in her opinion – and again, a unanimous decision – there is no “blanket temporary-flooding exception” in takings clause jurisprudence.

Why was it necessary for the Court to take a firm stand on this point? There was a precedent from 1924 that, according to the Government, established a rule that temporary flooding designed to protect the public interest was free of a takings examination in the courts. In short, they argued that the Government could indeed intentionally flood areas temporarily in order, for example, to facilitate flood control. In the Government’s understanding of this precedent, damage done to land was not compensable because it was done in the public interest of flood control (or other public works). Indeed, lawyers for the Government appear to have read one particular passage in the case as suggesting that, except when it could be shown that the flood was “the direct result of the structure,” and constituted a “permanent invasion of the land”, there could be no takings claim – whatsoever.

In reading the case law differently than the Government, Justice Ginsburg, intriguingly, points out that the precedent the Government relied on most heavily, Sanguinetti v. United States (264 US 316, 1924), predated cases that establish the contemporary jurisprudence on temporary takings (“Sanguinetti was decided in 1924, well before the World War II-era cases and First English Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale v. County of Los Angeles, 428 US 304 (1987), in which the Court first homed in on the matter of compensation for temporary takings. There is no suggestion in Sanguinetti that flooding cases should be set apart from the mine run of takings claims…” Slip Opinion, p. 2). This is intriguing because there is a long line of old precedents pre-dating contemporary jurisprudence that concern themselves specifically with flooding. Justice Ginsburg’s comment suggests that, perhaps, the Court would be willing to revisit others should industrious lawyers be able to argue that those cases are no longer in line with contemporary takings cases.

The Government also argued in their briefs that allowing takings claims in intentional flooding circumstances would result in the filing of takings claims that would make programs such as flood control difficult to implement. They suggested, as the Government often does, that accepting the plaintiff’s view would result in a slippery slope in which flood control and other programs would become all but impossible due to all of the takings claims made against them. Justice Ginsburg asserts that this is not the case:

“The slippery slope argument, we note, is hardly novel or unique to flooding cases. Time and again, in Takings Clause cases, the Court has heard the prophecy that recognizing a just compensation claim would unduly impede the government’s ability to act in the public interest,” (Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Slip Opinion, p. 12). Indeed, citing a case in which the “slippery slope” argument was made in dissents, Justice Ginsburg pointedly comments, “The sky did not fall after Causby v. US (328 US 256, 1946) and today’s modest decision augurs no deluge of takings liability” (Slip Opinion, p. 12).

Why no deluge? Why wouldn’t the decision make flood control more difficult?

Well, first, takings clause cases are notoriously difficult to win. This is partly because, especially in instances where regulatory takings or temporary takings occur, it is very difficult to fully document what has been taken. This makes determining “just compensation” difficult. If the value of the land is completely wiped out, as required under Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (505 US 1003), it becomes easier to calculate what must be compensated. But anything less than a total wipe-out becomes difficult.

The Supreme Court has said that temporary takings can be compensated (Causby v US), and they certainly recognize the possibility that while title in land may remain with the original owner a regulation can create a taking (multiple cases on this point, but look at Pennsylvania Coal Co. for the beginning of the contemporary doctrine). The Court has also said that the decision of whether a taking occurred will depend upon “a complex of factors” designed “to prevent the government from ‘forcing some people alone to bear public burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole,’” (Palazzolo v. Rhode Island (533 US 606, 2001), quoting Armstrong v. US (364 US 40, 1960)). In the reality of takings litigation, this means that the amount of detail required in the presentation of facts makes winning a takings case difficult (but not impossible).

What the justices did — unanimously — in Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. US was provide the opportunity for plaintiff-owners whose land is intentionally flooded to show that their claims rise to the level of a takings claim through this intensive litigation process. Put another way, the Court has provided owners an opportunity to show that the all the factors, taken together, support the argument that they have been “bearing burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole.”

It is a high bar to pass, but one that is possible. As I have written elsewhere, takings litigation takes years, sometimes even decades, as it did with Palazzolo v. Rhode Island. It requires a patient plaintiff and industrious lawyers. Given the costs associated with these types of cases (experts being necessary to prove/disprove the claims, there’s often scientific studies of effects on land/terrain and ecosystems, etc.), most owners are not likely to file lawsuits, and lawyers are unlikely to take them on. Lower courts will vet the lawsuits for threshold issues first, and then for all of the facts in order to determine whether that “complex of factors” exists. It’s not an easy process for anyone. The cases that will make their way to decisions by judges or juries, or find their way into appellate courts, will likely be complex and unique. But these characteristics – complexity and uniqueness – are the hallmarks of most cases that make their way to final decisions and appellate courts. “Typical” disputes end early. “Difficult” disputes take a lot longer.

However, this litigation will be a bit of a pain for government lawyers. Had the Government prevailed in Arkansas Game and Fish, the lawyers who defend takings cases in the Justice Department would not have to worry about intentional flooding cases. It would have removed a set of cases and claims from their docket, providing them an easy way of getting rid of complaining owners. That, in turn, would have sent a message to those administrators involved in flood control and other wetlands policies that they did not need to worry about a judicial check on their activities. In a sense, then, the Court maintained its power just a little bit by making it clear that, whether plaintiffs will prevail or not, takings cases will remain within their purview. Checks and balances are maintained by Arkansas Game and Fish by maintaining the Court’s ability to decide a certain type of case.

Brandt: Sometimes An Easement Is Just An Easement


In an 8 to 1 decision this morning, the US Supreme Court decided that the government has no reversionary interest in the right of way at issue in Brandt Revocable Trust v. US. The slip opinion can be found at the Supreme Court website, and of course, a summary of the issues in the case are up at Oyez as well as the Scotusblog. The case is a major victory for property rights advocates. 

As I mentioned in my previous summary of the case, Brandt contended that the right of way granted in an Act in 1875 was an easement, and that once the railroad abandoned their tracks, the underlying land became unburdened by the easement. The Government contended that the right of way granted in the 1875 Act was more than an easement, and reserved “an implied reversionary interest” to the United States in the event that the land, granted to the railroad, was needed in the future. In the opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts points out that the Government lost their case this time largely because they had, in 1942, argued the opposite of their position and had set a precedent that governed the current situation. In Great Northern Railway Co. v. US (315 US 262, 1942) the Government convinced the Court that the 1875 Act granted only an easement. What happens to an easement when it is abandoned, said today’s Court, is well settled in property law: “the easement disappears, and the landowner resumes his full and unencumbered interest in the land” (Majority Opinion, p. 11).

Chief Justice Roberts ends his decision pointing out that the Government’s argument represented a “stark change of position” and then suggests that the importance of settled expectations of the owners of private property motivates at least some of the majority’s thinking today:

More than 70 years ago, the Government argued before this Court that a right of way granted under the 1875 Act was a simple easement. The Court was persuaded, and so ruled. Now the Government argues that such a right of way is tantamount to a limited fee with an implied reversionary interest. We decline to endorse such a stark change of position, especially given ‘the special need for certainty and predictability where land titles are concerned.’”  (Majority Opinion, p. 17)

The lone dissent was filed by Justice Sotomayor who reads Great Northern a little differently. She argues that there were cases in 1903 and 1915 that the Court failed to take into account but are an important part of the context in which Great Northern occurred, and that “in the context of railroad rights of way, traditional property terms like ‘fee’ and ‘easement’ do not neatly track common-law definition.” In fact, she says, if you look at the past understandings of railway lands more broadly, it becomes clear that the Court’s interpretation of Great Northern applies an understanding of easement that developed in a dispute in which the question was quite specific and very different from what is presented in Brandt, i.e., whether the right of way granted in the 1875 act allowed the grantee the right to mine for subsurface minerals (oil, in this case). The Great Northern court said no, that the only right conveyed in the act was a right to use the surface of the land because the right of way was an easement. That finding, Justice Sotomayor says, is about a very different issue than whether the right of way granted a reversionary interest, which, of course, is the issue raised in Brandt. Justice Sotomayor also argues that, with regard to land grants for the railroads such as the one created in the 1875 legislation, ambiguity “is to be resolved favorably to a sovereign grantor.” This principle, she says, also comes out of Great Northern.

Her final point goes to the impact the decision will have on contemporary public policy. Justice Sotomayor points out that the decision made today “undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation. And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. I do not believe the law requires this result…” (Dissent, p. 7).

Both Justice Sotomayor and Chief Justice Roberts are correct: this decision should stabilize property title in situations where abandoned railroad tracks cross private property and an easement was granted through the 1875 Act; it will also mean that in those cases, land will have to be purchased, or a new easements will have to be sought for recreational trails through these areas. More litigation may well occur as a result.

For me, I continue to be interested in what all this means for the nature of an easement or a right of way granted through federal legislation. What I am wondering is whether this case suggests that easements and right of ways will be judged according to the specific intent and the extent of the servitude the legislation intended to place upon the land at the time the legislation was drafted. If, in subsequent decades, the federal government interprets the servitude differently from how it was understood at the time of enactment, will such a new interpretation be understood as an over-reach that tries to grant more of a right of way (i.e., a broader right to use) than was intended by the framers of the law? I think this Court will be open to taking a closer look at situations that raise that particular question.