When One State Sues Another

January 23, 2011
193 Views

Water from the Yellowstone River has caused one state to sue another.

What happens when one state sues another?  On January 10, 2011, oral arguments were heard in such a case, Montana v Wyoming. In almost all cases that reach the U.S. Supreme Court, one or more courts have already ruled.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in those settings, serves as the final appeal.  Rarely, however, a case may proceed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court without first being heard in a lower court.  Original jurisdiction refers to a court’s right to hear a case first.  When one state sues another state, the U.S. Supreme Court has original jurisdiction.  As mentioned, these conflicts are uncommon, and this year, Montana v Wyoming is the only original jurisdiction case on the Supreme Court’s docket.

Many neighboring states have agreements on how the water of a river will be divided.  Most of the time, states agree to certain allotments and a system for enforcement is put in place.  The agreement between Montana and Wyoming, the Yellowstone River Compact, dating back to 1950, handled things differently.  It established that the states would continue to use water from the river for the same purposes that they were using it for in 1950.  No specific allotments were made.  This system works fine when water is abundant, but serves the states poorly during a drought.  Montana is located downstream from Wyoming, and is trying to limit how much water Wyoming farmers can take from the river to irrigate their fields.  Each year, less and less is available for the Montana farmers.  The Yellowstone River Compact, however, limits the uses for which each state may withdraw water, but not the actual amount.  With improved irrigation techniques, less water is returning to the river, and Montana claims it’s citizens are unfairly harmed.

What do you think?  Should Wyoming’s use of the river be limited?

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