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PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana

Summarized by: 

Date Filed: February 22, 2012
Case #: 10-218
Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court
Full Text Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-218.pdf

Constitutional Law: A state does not acquire title to segments of rivers under the Equal Footing Doctrine when those segments of river were nonnavigable under federal law at the time of statehood.

Petitioner owns and operates several hydroelectric facilities located on rivers within the state of Montana. After foregoing rent for use of the riverbeds for over a century, Montana filed suit to claim title and begin charging rent. The federal case was dismissed and petitioner filed suit in state court to bar respondents from collecting compensation for use of riverbeds. Montana counterclaimed arguing that the state received title to the riverbeds upon statehood under the equal footing doctrine. The trial court granted Montana summary judgment and the Montana Supreme Court affirmed.

A unanimous Supreme Court reversed and remanded the Montana Supreme Court decision relying on The Daniel Ball definition of navigable waterways for purposes of title under the equal footing doctrine as rivers “navigable in fact,” meaning “they are used, or are susceptible of being used, . . . as highways for commerce, over which trade and travel are or may be conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water.” The segments of the rivers where petitioners’ facilities are located are nonnavigable because commerce could not have occurred on them and they required portage to traverse dating back to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806. Thus, the state of Montana did not acquire title upon statehood to these segments of the rivers where short interruptions of navigability made them nonnavigable in fact.