Supreme Court overrules Montana high court riverbed title decision

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled unanimously [opinion, PDF] Thursday in PPL Montana v. Montana [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that the Montana Supreme Court erred in failing to use a well-settled approach to determine whether the water beds at issue could be considered navigable. PPL Montana (PPL) [corporate website], which owns a hydroelectric power dam on the Missouri River, brought the challenge after the state Supreme Court held [opinion, PDF] that the title to the riverbeds passed to Montana when it became a state in 1889 and that the riverbeds are public trust lands under Article X, Section 11 [text] of the Montana Constitution. The Supreme Court of Montana ordered PPL to pay $41 million in back rent and more in future rent for use of the riverbeds. Petitioner PPL argued that the Montana Supreme Court "deviat[ed] from well-settled principles of Federal navigability law" by failing to focus on specific river segments and considering modern instead of historical use of the river. The US Supreme Court agreed with the petitioners. Pursuant to the "equal footing" doctrine, a state gains title to the navigable water beds within its borders and may "allocate and govern those lands according to state law." The court held that, in failing to implement the "segment-by-segment" approach to determining navigability of riverbeds, the Montana Supreme Court reached a decision inconsistent with well-established law.

JURIST Guest Columnist Richard Ausness recently argued [JURIST op-ed] that the segmentation approach to navigability adopted by the Supreme Court in United States v. Utah, and ultimately applied in PPL Montana v. Montana, "strikes a better balance between the interests of riparian owners and that of the states than the "highway of commerce" approach advocated by the State of Montana."

 

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