United States v. District Court in and for the County of Eagle

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: District Court in and for the County of Eagle
LOCATION: United States District Court for the District of Columbia

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)

CITATION: 401 US 520 (1971)
ARGUED: Mar 02, 1971
DECIDED: Mar 24, 1971

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. District Court in and for the County of Eagle

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 02, 1971 in United States v. District Court in and for the County of Eagle

Warren E. Burger:

-- in United States against District Court of Eagle County, Colorado.

Mr. Kiechel, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Walter Kiechel, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This case comes from the Supreme Court of Colorado and presents two questions important to the proper administration and conservation of the water resources of Colorado and nationally.

First, whether Congress by enacting so called McCarran Amendment codified at 43, United States Codes 666 intended to consent to a suit against the United States for adjudication of its water rights in one of 70 water districts of the State of Colorado.

And secondly, whether in the absence of any expressly stated intent to subject ?reserved rights of the United States? to state court adjudication.

such intent can be implied.

I plan to discuss preliminary and briefly the nature of water adjudications of the west and specifically that proceeding here involved in Colorado then address the threshold question of the application or the rule in this Court's opinion in Dugan v. Rank in 372 U.S. holding that the consent applied only to general adjudications then discussed the legislative history of the consent statute and lastly, the nature and extent of reserve water rights and the ability of the state courts of Colorado to adjudicate them.

Historically, water rights were judicially determined in the western states by flat Title action initiated by one or more water users.

The other claimants to water rights on the stream system were joined.

Each party affirmatively presented its claim and contested the claims of others.

This proceeding resulted in a determination by quantity and priority of the rights of the parties inter se say that has developed in most to the western states, statutory modification of this procedure or by the state engineer or some other official initiates the proceeding and presents the evidence in the first instance, but it instance remains the same.

A determination by the Court of the rights of all the parties on the Supreme System inter se say.

This proceeding was initiated in 1967 in the Water District 37 which at that time was one of 70 water districts of the State of Colorado.

These districts were established on water shed lines.

Water District 37, being the water shed of the Eagle River, the Eagle River being a tributary of the Colorado River.

This was a supplemental proceeding, there being a number of adjudications in Water District 37 over the years.

First one, over eight years ago and the last one as recently as in 1966, the year before the instant proceeding was initiated.

Now, a significant attribute of a supplemental proceeding under Colorado law is that the earliest priority decreed in such an adjudication must be later than the last priory date decreed in the preceding adjudication.

Or stated otherwise, all rights awarded in a new supplemental proceeding such as one before the Court are necessarily junior by operation of Colorado law to those decreed in previous adjudications.

This supplemental proceeding was initiated by the Colorado River Water Conservation District which adds before adjudication a decree of certain of its claimed water rights.

Other claimants appeared and the Conservation District sought to join the United States as a partner.

The United States moved to have itself dismissed, asserting among other things that this was not the type of proceeding that the Congress has consented.

The motion was denied by the District Court of Colorado for Eagle County and the United States sought a writ from the Supreme Court of Colorado to prohibit the District Court from asserting jurisdiction over it.

The Supreme Court of Colorado determined that the motion to dismiss was properly denied and rendered an extensive opinion in which have held first that Congress had intended to include the water adjudication procedure of Colorado among the suits to which it had consented.

Secondly, the Colorado Supreme Court held that notwithstanding this Court's interpretation of the consent statute in Dugan v. Rank that the statute permits joinder of the United States in a supplemental proceeding involving only a tributary water shed.

With respect to Reserved Water Rights of the United States, the Colorado Supreme Court strongly suggested that the United States had no water rights in Colorado except those arising under state law.

The Court said that the decisions of this Court, including Arizona v. California in 373, U.S. were not determinative.

Indeed, the Colorado Supreme Court said that the only decision that might be determinative of this question was one of its own and that if the Colorado Supreme Court determined that the United States has reserved rights in Colorado streams then that decision would or that determination would require the overruling of its previous decision.

And in that previous decision upon which the Colorado Supreme Court relies and it refers to in the course of its opinion, the Colorado Supreme Court had said that by admitting Colorado into the Union with a provision in its Constitution declaring on appropriated waters within the state to be the property of and subject to appropriation by the people of the state, that the United States lost any right to assert water rights in Colorado except those required by appropriation subject to a state law.