By Joseph Guinto
When the U.S. Supreme Court convened in October, the men (and woman) in black did not discuss landowner water rights. And for a pair of longtime Idaho ranchers — and perhaps other landowners — no news might mean bad news.
For the moment, the court has made no decision on whether to take up the case of Joyce Livestock vs. the United States. Earlier this year, Joyce and LU Ranching won a ruling against the federal government in Idaho’s Supreme Court in a potentially precedent-setting case of grazing rights.
Ranchers have long been subject to the rules set by the Bureau of Land Management under the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act. That act allows federal officials to set the terms under which ranchers can use public lands, including whether and how much water can be used.
But in 2005, Joyce and LU challenged that law as it applied to Idaho’s Snake River Basin. They argued that because they had operated in the area for more than 100 years–long before the Taylor Act–they had established water rights that the government could not remove.
By February of this year, their case reached the Idaho Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the livestock firms. But the court did not allow the companies’ claim to have the U.S. government pay their $1.3 million court fees. Idaho’s Supreme Court said the government did not act frivolously. The ranchers argued that the Equal Access to Justice Act–a law intended to prevent the government from running roughshod over small businesses and individuals by prolonging expensive litigation–entitled them to court costs. But the Idaho court said it had no jurisdiction to rule on that claim, leaving the U.S. Supreme Court as the last resort.
With the court’s docket already set until next year, precedent-watchers will have to wait on a final outcome.