PPL Montana v. Montana

LOCATION: First Judicial District Court of Montana, Lewis and Clark County

DOCKET NO.: 10-218
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: Montana Supreme Court

CITATION: 565 US (2012)
GRANTED: Jun 20, 2011
ARGUED: Dec 07, 2011
DECIDED: Feb 22, 2012

Edwin S. Kneedler – Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Gregory G. Garre – for the respondent
Paul D. Clement – for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 2003, parents of Montana schoolchildren sued the owner of federally licensed hydroelectric dams on the Missouri, Madison and Clark Fork rivers within the state. The parents claimed that the owner, PPL, owed the state compensation because the riverbeds underlying its dams were part of Montana’s “school trust lands.” The State of Montana joined the suit in 2004, asserting that PPL also owed the state compensation pursuant to Montana’s Hydroelectric Resources Act.

The federal district court eventually dismissed the action for lack of diversity, and PPL filed suit in state court. The state countersued, arguing that it obtained title to the relevant streambeds at the time of statehood pursuant to the “equal footing doctrine.” The trial court dismissed PPL’s affirmative defenses, held that the State obtained title to the riverbeds at issue because those rivers were navigable at the time of statehood and concluded that the state was entitled to retroactive lease payments under the HRA. Following a bench trial to determine damages, the court imposed approximately $40 million in back lease payments, as well as future lease payments imposed by the state.


Does the constitutional test for determining whether a section of a river is navigable for title purposes require a trial court to determine whether the relevant stretch of the river was navigable at the time of statehood?

Media for PPL Montana v. Montana

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 07, 2011 in PPL Montana v. Montana

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – February 22, 2012 in PPL Montana v. Montana

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has our opinion this morning in Case 10-218, PPL Montana, LLC versus Montana.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

As a general rule, when a State enters the Union, it takes title to riverbeds where the river above the bed is navigable.

This rule follows from the constitutional principle known as the equal-footing doctrine.

And the purpose of that — that doctrine is to allow newly admitted States the same ownership and control of riverbeds that the original 13 States enjoyed.

The general principles of the original 13 States and newly admitted States are on an equal-footing.

Navigability is determined as of the date the State entered the Union.

Typically, the United States owned the beds of navigable rivers before statehood and it’s ownership of beds within the State’s borders passed to the States when it entered the Union and there are qualifications to that general principle, but those need not be of a concern for this brief summary.

Montana became a State in 1889.

This case presents the question whether parts or segments of three different rivers were of navigable, as the law defines that concept, on that date.

The three rivers or to be more precise, the — the rivers whose segments are in question here are the Missouri River, the Madison River and the Clark Fork.

On portions of each of these rivers, all — and they’re all in Montana, a power company, which is the petitioner here, owns and operates dams or related hydroelectric facilities and the company is PPL Montana, the petitioner in the case.

For a number of years, PPL paid rent to the United States on the understanding that it was paying for use of lands that included the riverbeds that the United States owned.

Then in 2003, parents of Montana school children filed a suit arguing that the beds belong to the State.

This suit was later filed and the suit — and the State argued that rent should be paid to it because it, the State of Montana, owns the beds under the equal-footing doctrine.

The Montana Supreme Court held the rivers were navigable at the time of statehood and so they awarded judgment to the State.

This Court granted certiorari.

For the reasons explained in today’s opinion, the judgment of the Montana court is reversed.

The principle error of the Montana court was in its failure to adhere to this Court’s precedents on whether and when certain segments of the river must be deemed nonnavigable.

This Court’s well-settled rule that navigability can be assessed on a segment by segment basis, a rule given too little weight by the Montana court, is based on practical considerations and these include the fact that physical conditions may very significantly along the whole length of a river.

This Court’s segment by segment approach applies to the river segments here.

The case involves riverbed parcels and segments of the rivers where it is doubtful, the State can establish navigability, even if there might exist some riverbed parcels too small for the river segments above them to merit separate treatment, the parcels here, in particular, the portions of the riverbed under the Great Falls reach of the Missouri River are not so small as to be worthless or in administrable and there are other points as well.

Explorers at some places, particularly at the Great Falls reach, could not continue travel by river without inland portage.

Portage generally demonstrates the river waters cannot be navigated.

The state court did not give the necessary consideration to this factor in considering navigability.

The state court was mistaken too in the weight it placed on evidence of present-day primarily recreational use of the Madison River.

As the opinion explains, the reliance was not supported by the necessary findings.

Finally, Montana files its claim for riverbed rents over a century after the first PPL’s dams was built upon the riverbeds.

Today’s opinion notes that the State’s long failure to assert title is some additional evidence that the river segments here involved were deemed nonnavigable for purposes of the equal-footing doctrine.

The judgment of the Montana Supreme Court is reversed and the case is remanded, the opinion is unanimous.