Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Utah Stream Access Coalition v. State of Utah

The Fourth District Court of Utah (Judge Derek Pullan) recently issued a ruling on the motions for summary judgment filed in the Utah Stream Access Coalition v. State of Utah case regarding stream access on the Provo River. 
The court begin its ruling by holding that to the extent that Utah Code section 73-29-103 purports to interpret the Constitution and determine the constitutionality of HB 141, it violates Article V of the Utah Constitution.  The court noted that Article V, Section1 prohibits the legislature from exercising the powers of the judicial branch, and that it is the judiciary’s responsibility to determine what the Constitution means and whether a statute violates the Constitution.  The court noted, however, that “[a]t best, the statute constitutes an expression of legislative intent and nothing more.”
The court next held that Article XVII, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution recognizes and confirms public ownership of water in the state, as well as the public easement derived from that ownership.  The defendants had argued that the public easement recognized in the JJNP and Conatser cases is a creature of statute, but the court held otherwise.  The court cited prior case law and Utah history to support its conclusion that “public ownership of natural waters has always been, independent of any statutory grant.”  The court concluded that this also encompassed corollary rights, including the public’s recreational easement recognized in JJNP and Conatser.
Next, the court held that the Utah legislature has the authority to regulate use of waters owned by the public and the recreational easement derived therefrom.  The court noted that public ownership of the water and recreational easement does not eliminate the legislature’s authority to regulate; rather, the public ownership is the basis for the regulatory authority. 
The court then had to determine whether HB 141 did more than regulate use.  USAC contended that HB 141 essentially transferred a public asset to private ownership without compensation.  The court, however, did not agree with this contention.  The court concluded that HB 141 regulates the extent to which the public may use the public easement, but did not transfer or destroy the easement.
The court next had to determine whether the legislature’s regulatory authority is limited by Article XX of the Utah Constitution.  Article XX, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution provides that public lands are held by the State in trust for the benefit of its citizens, and may be disposed of for a public purpose or as provided by law.  The court concluded that the recreational easement constitutes an interest in land, and is therefore covered by Article XX.  However, because HB 141 did not dispose of the easement, it did not implicate the trust responsibilities imposed by Article XX.
Finally, the court reached the question of whether the public trust doctrine applies.  The court first looked at the federal public trust doctrine.  The court concluded that because HB 141 did not give the public easement to a private party, the federal public trust doctrine does not apply.  The court then noted that Utah case law recognizes a state public trust doctrine, under which the State regulates the use of water as trustee for the benefit of the people, and that this public trust doctrine applies to both navigable and non-navigable waters.  The court noted, however, that the nature and scope of the state public trust doctrine has not been well-defined in case law, and that the parties in this case had not had sufficient opportunity to brief the issue of the state public trust doctrine.  The court noted that “considerable deference” should be given to legislative decisions relating to the use of state waters, but that regulations that are illegal, arbitrary, capricious, or in clear violation of trust purposes are subject to judicial review.  The court asked the parties to submit additional briefing on the state public trust doctrine, after which the court will make a decision on this issue, which appears to be the sole remaining issue in the case.

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