Texas Supreme Court holds one public entity is not immune from condemnation suit filed by another


In this immunity case, the Texas Supreme Court held that governmental/sovereign immunity does not prohibit one political subdivision from utilizing eminent-domain proceedings against another political subdivision.

Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3 (the Improvement District) and the Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 1 (the Irrigation District) both provide water and irrigation services in Hidalgo County.  The Improvement District offered to purchase a subsurface easement from the Irrigation District, which rejected the offer. After negotiations failed, the Improvement District filed this condemnation action. The special commission awarded the Irrigation District $1,900 as the value for the property. The Irrigation District timely objected to the commissioners’ findings arguing that the Improvement District could not establish the paramount public importance of its pipeline.  Before the trial court ruled on the objection, the Irrigation District filed a plea to the jurisdiction. In its plea, the Irrigation District argued that it had governmental immunity from the condemnation suit and that the Legislature had not waived that immunity. The trial court agreed, granted the plea, and dismissed the suit.  The court of appeals agreed and affirmed. The Improvement District filed a petition for review.

The Texas Supreme Court first noted that in most immunity cases, the courts are not faced with deciding whether immunity applies by default, but whether such immunity is waived. Here, however, the Court noted it must first analyze whether immunity is applicable in condemnation proceedings in the first place. The Court noted that the judiciary solely decides the scope of immunity and when it applies by default, and the legislature solely decides when it is waived.  The modern jurisprudence justifies the doctrine as a means of (1) protecting the public fisc by shielding tax resources from being diverted to pay litigation costs and money judgments and (2) preserving the separation of powers and the Legislature’s prerogative to apportion tax dollars to their intended purposes. The immunity doctrine also has limits.

This case asks how sovereign immunity interacts with a second power inherent to the state’s status as a sovereign: eminent domain.  The sovereign’s power to condemn property for public use is both ancient and foundational to the nature of sovereignty itself.  When balancing one subdivision’s ability to condemn the land of another public subdivision, the Court has applied the paramount-public-importance doctrine. Under this doctrine, a condemnee may prevent a condemnation of property already devoted to public use if (1) the condemnee first establishes that the condemnation “would practically destroy the use to which [the property] has been devoted,” and (2) the condemnor fails to show that “the necessity be so great as to make the new enterprise of paramount importance to the public, and it cannot be practically accomplished in any other way.”  So, the concept of condemning already public land for the benefit of another public entity has been around for a long time. Despite nearly a century of precedent discussing this doctrine, no parties nor the Court raised governmental immunity as a factor.

The Irrigation District attempts to undermine this fact by arguing that the condemnation could shift certain risks associated with the pipeline’s construction and operation from the Improvement District to the Irrigation District. But this argument relies solely on speculative and indeterminate future harms. Even if it were not speculative, the result would be a shifting of risk only between two public entities, who ultimately are responsible to the same citizens. The net effect on the public fisc is zero. The Court disagreed with the court of appeals and held that by applying immunity, it would interfere with a separation of powers, as it would undermine the Legislature’s allocation of condemnation power. The paramount-public-importance doctrine has long provided an adequate framework for balancing the condemnor’s legislatively granted condemnation authority with the condemnee’s ability to serve its own public purpose. As a result, the Court held immunity is not implicated between two public entities involved in a condemnation proceeding.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Justice Lehrmann delivered the opinion of the court.

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