Trial court properly declined to appoint condemnation commission before hearing plea to the jurisdiction says Texas Supreme Court

In Re Lazy W District No. 1. , 15-0117 (Tex. May 27, 2016)

This original mandamus proceeding involves two governmental entities, one of which petitioned for condemnation of a water pipeline easement across the other’s land.

The Tarrant Regional Water District (“the Water District”) supplies water to some two million Texans across 11 counties. The Water District and the City of Dallas agreed to build a 150-mile pipeline to transport water owned by Dallas in Lake Palestine. LazyW District No. 1 is a municipal utility district which owns land over which an easement is necessary to run the pipeline. Politics exist behind the scene which the Court discussed but which is unnecessary for this summary. The Water District petitioned for condemnation in the district court. The district court appointed three special commissioners to determine the value of the proposed easement. When the Lazy W learned of the order it filed a plea to the jurisdiction, asserting its immunity as a governmental entity and requesting that the appointments be vacated and the petition dismissed. Normally, the trial court is not to interfere in the commissioners’ proceedings and does not become involved again until the commissioners file their award.  The district court vacated its appointment and declined to proceed with anything else before hearing and ruling on the plea. The Water District sought mandamus relief in the court of appeals. That court held that “the trial court was without jurisdiction to refuse to appoint special commissioners.” Lazy W appealed.

The Court went through Chapter 21 of the Property Code regarding condemnation and the procedures noting the administrative nature of the commission and the judicial appeal aspects of the court.  The Water District contended that the trial court cannot rule on the Lazy W’s plea to the jurisdiction until the commissioners issue their award.  However, the Court disagreed  holding “[s]ection 21.014 is certainly mandatory, but it is not restrictive. It requires the court to appoint commissioners, but it does not forbid any other action.” The Court went through different instances where it is proper to challenge the jurisdiction of the trial court to appoint commissioners. “Courts always have jurisdiction to determine their own jurisdiction.”  “We have never held that a trial court in a condemnation case is powerless to determine its own subject matter jurisdiction before appointing commissioners.” “We do not hold that a trial court must make an early ruling in every situation, only that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining to do so here.”  However, the Court was quick to add it expressed no view on whether the Lazy W is immune from suit and expressly declined to address that issue here.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Chief Justice Hecht delivered the opinion of the Court. The docket page with attorney information is found here.