RESPONDENT: Debenedictis et al.
LOCATION: Pennsylvania General Assembly
DOCKET NO.: 85-1092
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
CITATION: 480 US 470 (1987)
ARGUED: Nov 10, 1986
DECIDED: Mar 09, 1987
Andrew S. Gordon - on behalf of the Respondents
Rex E. Lee - on behalf of the Petitioners
Facts of the case
By passing the the Bituminous Mine Subsidence and Land Conservation Act (Act), the Pennsylvania Legislature empowered the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DER) to regulate underground coal mining that damaged structures on the surface. When implementing the Act, DER prevented coal miners from removing more than 50% of coal from mines located beneath buildings. Historically, coal miners acquired rights to "mining estates" separate from the property owned on the above "surface estates." The Keystone Bituminous Coal Association, a group of miners, complained that the Act created a "support estate" that effectively took away its property without compensation. Keystone relied on the Supreme Court's decision in Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon to allege that this state action violated the Contract Clause and the Takings Clause found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court rejected both allegations and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the decision.
Does a state violate the Takings Clause by forcing coal mining companies to keep certain amounts of coal in underground mines in order to support structures on the surface? Does this restriction violate the Contract Clause by canceling agreements miners have made to secure their rights to underground coal?
Media for Keystone Bituminous Coal Association. v. DeBenedictis
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 10, 1986 in Keystone Bituminous Coal Association. v. DeBenedictis
William H. Rehnquist:
We will hear arguments next in Keystone Bituminous Coal Association against Nicholar DeBenedictis.
Mr. Lee, you may proceed whenever you're ready.
Rex E. Lee:
Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:
This case involves two Constitutional provisions, the takings clause and the contract clause.
The principle that controls the takings issue is simple and well established.
Sixty-four years ago this Court held in Pennsylvania Coal v. Mahon that regulation which goes too far amounts to an unconstitutional taking.
And specifically, it held that the State of Pennsylvania went too far when it required anthracite coal owners to leave certain coal in the ground in order to serve a public purpose.
There is, very simply, no meaningful distinction between Section 4, which is one of the two sections of the statute at issue today, and the Kohler Act, which held... which Pennsylvania Coal held unconstitutional.
Indeed, the parallels between the two statutes are remarkable.
The operative language in the Kohler Act was as follows: It shall be unlawful for any owner so to mine anthracite coal as to cause subsidence.
Whereas its modern day counterpart, Section 4, states that no owner shall mine bituminous coal so as to cause damage from subsidence.
The one deals with anthracite, and the other, bituminous.
But that's the only real difference.
If Pennsylvania Coal is still good law, as this Court has stated on many occasions that it is, the then Third Circuit's judgment in this case must be reversed.
The controversy arises out of the following circumstances.
Pennsylvania law recognizes three separate property interests, or estates in land: the mineral estate; the surface estate; and the support estate.
My clients' Constitutional rights are based on the right that as to most of their properties, they have acquired two of these three estates.
And it's important to understand why it is that they acquired the support estate in addition to the coal.
Most of Pennsylvania's bituminous coal, which is located in the western part of the State, lies hundreds of feet below the ground and is extracted by underground mining.
When that happens, the surface will subside.
In some cases, the subsidence will cause damage, and in other cases, it doesn't.
And it is impossible to predict in advance which parcels will be damaged by subsidence, and which will not.
Two facts, then, bring the interests of the coal owners on the one hand and the surface owners on the other into an obvious conflict.
On the one hand, coal in the ground has no value unless it can be mined.
It's worthless unless it can be mined.
Yet on the other hand, the underground mining of any coal in any quantity creates some risk of subsidence.
So that if it isn't mined, it's valueless.
And if it is mined, there will be subsidence, and there may be some damage.
In the case of about 90 percent of the bituminous parcels in Pennsylvania, these competing interests have been accommodated, and the relevant burdens and risks have been shifted by contract.