The Texas Supreme Court answered a number of questions in the 128 opinions it issued during the 2011-2012 term. They ranged from whether sovereign immunity applies to a tort claim to how much trial judges must explain their rationales for granting motions for new trial.
But when it came to making calls on substantive issues of law, one theme dominated the term, says Justice Dale Wainwright: property rights.
The court issued seven important decisions that dealt with property rights, says Wainwright, who recently reviewed the court’s 2011-2012 term for the State Bar of Texas Advanced Civil Appellate Course.
• Severance v. Patterson, March 30: This was a 5-3 decision that originally came to the court via certified question from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The high court had to answer whether private beachfront properties on Galveston Island’s West Beach are “impressed” with a right of public use under Texas law without proof of an easement. The court ruled that Texas law does not recognize a rolling public beachfront access easement.
• Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas, March 20, 2011: In this unanimous decision, the court found that a landowner has the right to challenge in a Texas trial court the eminent domain power of a CO2 pipeline owner that has been granted a common-carrier permit from the Railroad Commission.
• Edwards Aquifer v. Day, Feb. 24: This was a unanimous decision in which the court decided that land ownership includes an interest in groundwater in place that cannot be taken for public use without adequate compensation guaranteed by the Texas Constitution.
• City of Austin v. Whittington, Aug. 31: In this 7-2 decision, the high court reversed a lower court finding that the city of Austin’s determination to condemn land for a parking lot and cooling station “was fraudulent, in bad faith, and arbitrary and capricious.” The high court concluded that the city determinations to condemn the land were not any of those things.
• City of Dallas v. Stewart, Jan. 27: This was a 5-4 opinion in which the court upheld a $75,000 judgment a landowner won from the city of Dallas after a jury determined that the city’s demolition of her abandoned house was an improper taking. The high court concluded that the woman “properly asserted her takings claim on appeal to district court” and met the proper deadlines — something that rarely happens when a city demolishes a house because it becomes a “nuisance.”
• Enbridge Pipelines v. Avinger Timber, Aug. 31: This case involved a dispute over the fair market value of acreage on which a gas processing facility is located. By a 6-3 vote, the high court held that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting an expert’s testimony that violated the value-to-the-taker rule, which prohibits measuring a land’s value by its unique value to a condemnor in determining a landowner’s compensation. The court held that the expert’s testimony violated the rule because it impermissibly focused on the condemnor’s interest in retaining the property and was therefore inadmissible.
• Hearts Bluff Game Ranch v. State of Texas and Texas Water Development Board, Aug. 13: This was a 6-3 decision in which the court considered whether a takings claim against the state may be predicated on the federal government’s denial of a permit when the state had no authority to grant or deny the permit. The court’s answer was no, absent establishing bad faith.