Divided Supreme Court Upholds Special Master’s Report in Disagreement Between Kansas and Nebraska


Yesterday, in the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Kansas v. Nebraska, several members of the Court strongly disagreed with the determinations of Justice Kagan, including that “disgorgement” was proper. The Chief Justice, and Justices Thomas, Scalia and Alito argued that the Court’s equitable power was not sufficient to alter the accounting principles the states had agreed to in earlier settlements. For his part, Justice Scalia advised his colleagues not to treat the Restatements of the law as an authoritative description of the law: “Over time, the Restatements’ authors have abandoned the mission of describing the law, and have chosen instead to set forth their aspirations for what the law ought to be”. For his part, Justice Thomas took the view that ordinary contract principles should have been applied to this dispute, which the majority ignored, and observed that this dispute involves the “inherent authority of sovereign states to regulate the use of water” and that “authority over water is a core attribute of state sovereignty”. These views may play a role in all manner of cases in the future.

Kansas and Nebraska share the waters of the Republican River that flow through their states, as well as Colorado. Their disputes resulted in the Republican River Compact, which the states agreed to in 1943 to fairly allocate the water resources of the Republican River; the Compact was approved by the Congress in appropriate legislation.

In 1998, Kansas and Nebraska argued over Nebraska’s increased pumping of groundwater, which resulted from the construction of thousands of wells hydraulically connected to the Republican River and its tributaries. A Special Master was appointed to sort out these complaints, and a settlement was signed in 2002 which included new procedures to promote compliance with the Compact.

After the experience of some lingering droughts, Kansas complained that Nebraska was exceeding its authorized allocation of water. Another Special Master was appointed, who determined that Nebraska had knowingly failed to comply with the Compact in consuming excessive amounts of Republican River water, and the Master awarded Kansas $3.7 million for its loss and an additional sum of $1.8 million against Nebraska as a “partial disgorgement”. Both parties filed exceptions to the Special Master’s report, which the Supreme Court overruled. Ultimately, the Supreme Court adopted the Special Master’s determination that Nebraska “knowingly failed” to comply with its Settlement obligations, his recommendation that Nebraska pay Kansas an additional $1.8 million in disgorgement, and his recommendation that Kansas’s request for injunctive relief be denied.

Additional Source: The Washington Post, Scalia questions the value of “modern” Restatements