On June 18, 2021, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a decision in a lawsuit concerning regulation of the Raccoon River. The lawsuit was initially filed in 2019 by environmental groups who alleged that the state of Iowa had violated its mandatory duty to protect the Raccoon River. Ultimately, the Iowa Supreme Court decided to dismiss the case because it found that the plaintiffs lacked the standing necessary to bring their claims.
The plaintiffs in Iowa Citizens for Cmty. Improvement v. State, No. 19-1644 (Iowa June 18, 2021) first filed their lawsuit in March, 2019. At the time of filing, the plaintiffs asked the court to compel the state of Iowa to adopt legislation that would require farmers in Iowa to take on practices that would have the result of significantly reducing the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Raccoon River. The plaintiffs brought this claim under the Public Trust Doctrine (“PTD”), a legal doctrine that requires states to hold certain natural resources in trust for the benefit of their citizens. To read more about the initial lawsuit, click here.
The defendants asked the lower court to dismiss the case based on the plaintiffs’ lack of standing, nonjusticiability, and failure to exhaust administrative remedies. According to the defendants, the plaintiffs’ claims were too speculative, and that the link between the harms alleged by the plaintiffs and the conduct of the defendants was too insubstantial to justify a lawsuit. The lower court declined to dismiss the lawsuit. In its decision, the lower court noted that the requirements for standing to bring a PTD case in Iowa are (1) a specific, personal, and legal interest in the litigation, and (2) injury. The lower court concluded that the environmental plaintiffs had met both requirements for standing because they alleged injuries that had occurred as a result of the Raccoon River being too polluted to enjoy either recreationally or aesthetically.
The defendants appealed the lower court’s decision not to dismiss to the Supreme Court of Iowa. Once again, the defendants argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring their claims, and that those claims were ultimately nonjusticiable political questions that would be properly solved by the legislature, not the judiciary.
Iowa Supreme Court Decision
After reviewing the case, the Iowa Supreme Court decided to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint due to lack of standing and nonjusticiability of the claims.
The court began by reviewing the issue of standing. Standing refers to a plaintiff’s ability to bring a claim into a court of law. In order to have standing in a federal court, a plaintiff must show that they have suffered an actual injury, that the injury is related to the defendant’s conduct, and that the injury is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision from the court. In Iowa state courts, the standard for standing is slightly different. To have standing in an Iowa state court, a plaintiff must show that it has “a specific personal or legal interest in the litigation and […] be injuriously affected.” According to the Iowa Supreme Court, the “injuriously affected” requirement of standing in Iowa state courts incorporates the three-part standing test applied in federal courts. In order for the plaintiffs in Iowa Citizens for Cmty. Improvement v. State to have standing to bring their case, they must show that: (1) they have a personal or legal interest in the lawsuit; (2) they have suffered an injury; (3) the injury is a result of the defendant’s actions; and (4) that the court has the ability to redress that injury.
In its decision, the court focused on the portion of the standing test that requires a plaintiff’s injury to be redressable by the court. Specifically, the court noted that “if the court can’t fix your problem, if the judicial action you seek won’t redress it, then you are only asking for an advisory opinion.” In this case, the plaintiffs alleged that they had been injured because the pollution levels in the Raccoon River had prevented them from enjoying the river recreationally or aesthetically. To redress that injury, the plaintiffs asked the court to issue an order requiring the state of Iowa to adopt a “mandatory remedial plan” which would require all grain and livestock producers to “implement nitrogen and phosphorus limitations in the Raccoon Valley watershed.” Doing so would require the Iowa legislature to pass new legislation. Not only would it be nearly impossible for the court to predict what that legislation would ultimately end up looking like, but it would also be extremely difficult for the court to determine whether ordering the legislation the plaintiffs asked for would solve their alleged injuries. The court determined that the plaintiffs had failed to show that a favorable outcome in the case would be likely to redress the alleged injury. Accordingly, the plaintiffs’ claims were dismissed for lack of standing.
Next, the court considered whether the plaintiffs’ claims were nonjusticiable political questions that should not be before a court. The nonjusticiable political question doctrine is the idea that courts will not adjudicate some issues because their resolution is more proper within the political branches of government, such as the legislature. In Iowa, the courts have determined that an issue may be a political question if one or more of the following is present: (1) textual evidence that the Iowa State Constitution has assigned the issue to a political branch of government; (2) a lack of judicially available standards for resolving the issue; (3) the inability of the court to resolve the issue without making a policy determination that is not within the court’s discretion to make; (4) the inability of the court to resolve the issue without respecting the other branches of government; (5) an unusual need to adhere to a political decision that has already been made; or (6) the potential for multiple branches or departments of government to release decisions on the issue.
Here, the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that a nonjusticiable political question was present because of a lack of judicially available standards for resolving the issue. In their complaint, the plaintiffs asked the court to expand Iowa’s application of the PTD. Historically, the PTD has been applied by courts in Iowa to remove “private obstructions or interferences” with navigable waters. The plaintiffs argued that the PTD should be more broadly applied in Iowa in a way that would place a duty on the state to pass laws that would regulate navigable waters for the best interests of the public. According to the court, if they adopted the plaintiffs’ broad application, there would be no judicially available standards for determining what uses of navigable water are truly in the best interest of the public. Because the court was not able to resolve the plaintiffs’ issue using “accepted methods of judicial decisionmaking,” it found that the claim was nonjusticiable and dismissed the case.
This decision from the Iowa Supreme Court dismissing Iowa Citizens for Cmty. Improvement v. State is significant for agricultural producers in the Raccoon River watershed who will not be required to adopt new practices as a result of this lawsuit. In a broader sense, the court’s decision is significant in limiting how the PTD is applied in Iowa. By concluding that the plaintiffs’ request that the court adopt a broader interpretation of the PTD was a nonjusticiable political question, the court has left it up to legislature to determine whether the PTD should be expanded. Going forward, courts in Iowa will likely continue to apply the PTD the way it has historically been applied in the state.
To read the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Iowa Citizens for Cmty. Improvement v. State, click here.
To read the lower court’s decision, click here.
To read the defendant’s appellant brief, click here.
To read the plaintiffs’ appellee brief, click here.
For additional National Agricultural Law Center resources on water law, click here.