The government may have to compensate property owners whose land is temporarily flooded when officials release water from an upstream dam, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.
In a unanimous decision, the justices today said those landowners might have a claim under the constitutional provision that requires “just compensation” when the government seizes or occupies private property.
Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said a federal appeals court was wrong to categorically exclude temporary floods from the scope of that provision. There is “no solid grounding in precedent for setting flooding apart from all other government intrusions on property,” Ginsburg wrote.
The ruling is a victory for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which is seeking to revive a trial court’s $5.7 million award against the federal government for damage done to trees in a wildlife area along the Black River. The commission blames the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for periodically releasing water from a nearby dam at the request of farmers.
The ruling doesn’t necessarily mean the commission will collect on that award. Calling the ruling a “modest” one, Ginsburg said the federal government will have a chance to make several additional arguments.
Letting temporary-flooding cases go forward “is scarcely to credit all, or even many, such claims,” she wrote. She said courts should weigh a number of factors, including the duration of the intrusion, in deciding whether compensation is warranted.
The National Association of Home Builders, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Forest Resource Council were among the groups supporting the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in the case.
The case is Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. United States, 11-597.
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