LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas law professor has authored a study and will argue before the Supreme Court on a water rights case via a method that can be thought of as a more civil version of civil war.
Stephen McAllister, E.S. & Tom W. Hampton Distinguished Professor of Law, will argue on behalf of Kansas before the Supreme Court on Oct. 14 in a dispute about water rights and the Republican River. Lower courts have determined that Nebraska has pumped too much water from the river before it flows into Kansas and that Nebraska should pay Kansas $5.5 million. Nebraska claims that amount is too steep, while Kansas claims the payment should be higher. McAllister is arguing at the request of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who will join McAllister at counsel table for the oral argument.
McAllister also has written a new article to be published this fall in the law journal The Green Bag about original jurisdiction procedures, the process by which disputes between states often are initiated and decided in the Supreme Court.
“One of the ways to think of original jurisdiction is as ‘the other civil war,’” McAllister said. “Instead of states taking action against each other, militarily or otherwise, they can go to the Supreme Court and get a resolution of their dispute. Original jurisdiction gives the Supreme Court the chance to keep such disputes from ever reaching the point of violence or other punitive actions between states.”
Original jurisdiction was used only sparingly before the Civil War, but since then it has been used frequently to determine all manner of disputes between states over water rights, fishing rights, boundaries and occasionally other issues such as interstate pollution. One of the most famous recent cases was a dispute between New York and New Jersey over which state owned Ellis Island, home to the historic center that processed millions of immigrants to the United States.
This isn’t the first time McAllister has been involved in a water rights case that ended up at the Supreme Court via original jurisdiction. Kansas v. Colorado was a dispute over water rights to the Arkansas River. In that case, Kansas sued Colorado for taking more than Colorado’s share of the water in the river before it reached Kansas. McAllister worked on the case near its conclusion, assisting then-Kansas Attorney General Steve Six, writing briefs and providing consultation. McAllister’s work on that case and the Supreme Court’s decision prompted him to write another article in The Green Bag, agreeing with Chief Justice John Roberts that the Supreme Court alone had the constitutional power to determine the procedures for original jurisdiction cases and that Congress could not and should not get involved in such matters.
Some have argued that Congress has the power to dictate the procedures the Supreme Court uses in these state versus state cases, but McAllister in responding has noted that Congress has never purported to do so directly in the nation’s history.
“History suggests that Congress has never really thought they could or needed to get involved in these cases,” McAllister said. “I don’t see how Congress getting involved could make things any better. The court has developed procedures and provided a forum that has worked for the states.”
While some claim that the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to set certain parameters on the court, gives Congress the power to determine original jurisdiction procedures, McAllister disagrees.
“The logical extension of that argument is that Congress could completely control every aspect of the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction, which would do away with separation of powers. The Supreme Court does not try to control or change the procedures Congress uses.”
In his upcoming arguments before the Supreme Court, McAllister will argue because it has been established that Nebraska pumped too much water from the Republican River and violated a previous compact between the states on water usage, Nebraska should have to pay Kansas significant damages, both to compensate for the loss to Kansas and to deter Nebraska from committing future violations.
“The upstream states always have an advantage, as far as first shot at the water and the ability to use what they want,” McAllister said. “You often end up with disputes arising from interstate water compacts arising decades down the road. I think one of the questions is, ‘How much remedy is appropriate in this situation? It’s an interesting question to argue because there aren’t really hard and fast rules here.”
The case will be both a chance for a KU professor to argue before the Supreme Court and for KU Law students to observe the preparation process firsthand. McAllister will take part in several moot court sessions before the October arguments in order to practice and prepare. In one of those sessions, KU faculty will represent the Supreme Court justices who will hear the case. Students will observe and be able to ask questions following the session.
This particular case will also be part of McAllister’s distinguished professor lecture, which he will present Oct. 6. His Supreme Court experiences, consulting with the Kansas Attorney General’s office and the intersection of the two with service, teaching and scholarship will all be part of the presentation.