Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill

PETITIONER:Tennessee Valley Authority
LOCATION:Tellico Dam

DOCKET NO.: 76-1701
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 437 US 153 (1978)
ARGUED: Apr 18, 1978
DECIDED: Jun 15, 1978
GRANTED: Nov 14, 1977

Griffin B. Bell – for petitioner
Zygmunt J. B. Plater – for respondents

Facts of the case

In 1967, Congress appropriated funds to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to build the Tellico Dam. In 1973 Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which protected certain species classified as “endangered”. The Secretary of the Interior declared the Snail Darter endangered. The area of the Tellico Dam was its “critical habitat”. Although the multi-million dollar project was almost completed, the project predated the ESA, and Congress continued to appropriate funds to the project after the ESA passed, Hiram Hill sued to enjoin the completion of the Dam in order to protect the Snail Darter. He argued that completing and opening the dam would violate the ESA by causing the extinction of the snail darter. The district court refused to grant the injunction and dismissed the complaint. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded with instructions to issue a permanent injunction against any activities that would modify or destroy the Snail Darter’s critical habitat.


(1) Does the ESA prohibit completion of the Tellico Dam?

(2) Is the Snail Darter protected by the Endangered Species Act, even though congress continued to fund the dam project and stated that it should be completed?

Media for Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 18, 1978 in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 15, 1978 in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill

Warren E. Burger:

Well, I have the opinion, judgment and opinion for the Court to announce in Tennessee valley authority against Hill and I will discuss it only briefly.

This case has been identified as one involving a three-inch fish which on the occasion of the argument, the Attorney General brought to the vector encased in a small flask.

It is a species of the Perch family, which will, according to all the evidence in the case and the findings of the Secretary of the Interior be exterminated if the Tellico dam which is project of the TVA complex is allowed to operate.

The case also involves $120 million dam which was authorized by the Congress and that dam is virtually completed and ready to operate.

In reality, in the view of the majority of the Court, the case involves something more important than either a three-inch fish which is endangered as a species or even then $120 million dam.

As the majority of the Court sees it, some very important and fundamental principles of the separation of powers are at stake.

Congress has categorically provided that no project may be carried out, may be carried out if it endangers the existence of any species which the Secretary of the Interior declares is endangered and he has done so here.

We hold then under the established precedence of this Court and under very express and explicit rules of the Congress, an appropriation or continued appropriations do not repeal an express statute.

In our view, the Congress has, wisely or not, decreed that the endangered species have priority over even a multi-million dollar dam.

In 1966, in the Endangered Species Act, of that date and again in the 1969 Act, Congress declared that the endangered species were to be protected in effect so far as practicable but in the 1973 Act, which is the statute before us, it very pointedly removed those qualifying provisions, created as we see it, an absolute duty to preserve all endangered species.

We emphasize that under the constitution, judges have limited functions and we do not review the solemness or the wisdom of what Congress does and I will read the essence of the opinion, I think, briefly from the opinion itself which is filed this morning.

Our individual appraisal of the wisdom or unwisdom of a particular course, consciously selected by the Congress is to be put aside in the process of interpreting a statute.

Once the meaning of an enactment is discerned and its constitutionality determined, the judicial process comes to an end.

We do not sit as a committee of review, nor are we vested with the power of Veto and accordingly, we agree with the Court of Appeals of the Sixth Circuit that in our constitutional system, the commitment to the separation of powers is too fundamental and too important for us to preempt congressional action by judicially decreeing what would seem to accord to us as the common sense in the public wheel.

Our constitution invests all such responsibilities in the political branches and the matter is now is in the hands of Congress.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

I dissent orally because the court’s decision is aviate, is quite erroneous and will create serious and far reaching consequences.

As the Chief Justice has stated, this is the famous snail darter case.

The darter is of three-inch pitch, practically indistinguishable from many similar small pitch.

This has been called a case of a three-inch fish against a $120 million Tellico dam project, a project located on the little Tennessee river.

Today, the fish wins 100%.

Although, the dam has been completed and all that remains is to close the gate.

This Court will now issue a permanent injunction, a great reservoir project designed to save an impoverished area of Tennessee is ended.

This remarkable result comes about in this way.

The Endangered Species Act adopted in 1973 has a commendable objective of preserving species of animal and plant life and their habitats where they are endangered.

In the same year, the snail darter was discovered and two years later, in 1975, the Secretary of the Interior found that the Tellico project would result in destruction of the snail darter’s habitat.

In February 1976, when the project was 80% completed, respondents filed this suit to enjoin completion and operation of the dam.

The district court held that Congress could not have intended to produce such an absurd result.

The words I use are those of the district court but the Court of Appeals held and this Court now agrees that the Language of the Act requires the result, however absurd it may be.

It is a language, we are indeed perfectly clear.

It would be, as the Chief Justice states, the duty of this Court to enforce it regardless of the consequences.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

It is not the province of the judicial branch to rectify policy of political judgments of the legislative branch, however egregiously we may think they discern the public interest.

The issue thus presented to us was one of statutory construction.

Did Congress intend to end federal projects whenever some form of life is endangered by their continued operation.

The court thinks that both the language and history of the Act requires this result.

It is here that I disagree.

The statutory language said there is no credit to whoever drafted it.

It may be read as the Court reads it but it need not be so read, it may not be read as applying to completed or nearly completed projects.

This Court has said on more than one occasion and here I quote that literal application of a statute that would lead to upset consequences is to be avoided whenever a reasonable application is to be — whenever a reasonable application can be given consistent with the legislative purpose.

Thus a central inquiry is ascertainment of congressional purpose and intent.

I think it is plain from the total legislative history that Congress intended no such result as that reached by the Court today.

I review briefly the highlights, the Tellico project was authorized in 1966, 7 years before the Endangered Species Act was adopted and 10 years before the suit was filed.

In every year since 1966, Congress has appropriated funds for the construction and completion of this project.

Since 1975, the appropriations committees of both houses have been fully advised of the project’s effect on the snail darter.

With all other facts before them, these committees have continued to fund the project.

Moreover, in their reports to the Congress, they stated unequivocally that the Act was not intended to halt this project.

The committee’s recommendations were approved by both houses of Congress and signed in three consecutive years by the President of the United States.

The Court brushes aside this post-enactment history and relies on contemporary statements.

It deems to be supportive of its view, statements adopted at the time that the statute was enacted.

Typical of these statements, if one by a member of Congress emphasizing the importance with which everyone agrees of preserving endangered species.

This Congress then said, that the air force must discontinue bombing practice along the golf coast of Texas, if this endangered the whooping cranes, I would certainly agree with that but there is not even a hint in the legislative history that Congress intended to compel the undoing or abandonment of completed federal projects.

No testimony was taken on this possibility, not a single Congressman discussed it.

If Congress had been aware that the Act could be used to terminate major federal projects authorized years earlier or to require abandonment of essential federal installations.

Common sense tells us that there would have been legislative hearings, there would have been testimony, certainly there would have been debate concerning the consequences so wasteful, so inamicable to purposes previously deemed important by the Congress and so likely to arouse public outrage.

The absence of any such consideration by the committees or in the floor debate indicates beyond all questions, that no one intended today’s consequences.

These consequences, unfortunately, are not limited to the Tellico project.

The Court’s decision casts a long shadow over the continued operation of even the most important projects, projects serving vital needs of society as well as national defense.

If continued operation endangers a survival or the critical habitat of a newly discovered species, a water spider or cockroach, operation of the project could be brought to a halt.

If Congress acts expeditiously, the Court’s decision probably will have no lasting at these consequences but I had not thought it to be the province of this Court to force Congress into otherwise unnecessary action to produce a result no one ever intended.

Mr. Justice Blackmun joins me in this dissent.

Mr. Justice Rehnquist has filed a separate dissenting opinion.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice Powell.