WICHITA FALLS, Texas (CN) – A federal judge Wednesday ruled that Texas landowners can sue the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for its alleged seizure of 90,000 acres of private property along the Red River boundary with Oklahoma.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor granted in part and denied in part the BLM’s motion for partial dismissal.
Eight private landowners, Clay County Sheriff Kenneth Lemons Jr. and three counties sued the BLM in November. They claim it is “well established” that Texas begins at the southern bank of the Red River and that federal ownership is limited to the bottom half of the sandy riverbed outside of the state. They say the BLM asserts that the boundary extends past that, sometimes by more than a mile.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intervened on the plaintiffs’ behalf within days, calling the action an illegal “land grab” by federal officials.
In a 40-page opinion Wednesday, O’Connor declined to dismiss the plaintiffs’ request for declaratory judgment, mandamus and an injunction “regarding the method for locating the boundary between their property and federal territory” because they have constitutional standing.
“First, defendants appear to have conceded at this early stage in the litigation that the individual surveyed plaintiffs have a ‘concrete and particularized’ injury in fact in the form of the Survey Markers being driven into their respective properties,” the opinion states. “Furthermore, the court finds that the county plaintiffs’ ‘asserted injuries to its tax base[s] and property tax revenues satisfy Article III’s injury-in-fact requirement.’ In addition, even to the limited extent of individual surveyed plaintiffs’ land, the court finds that Sheriff Lemons suffers a concrete and particularized injury by not being able to clearly enforce criminal statutes that turn on property ownership, including Texas Penal Code § 30.005 concerning criminal trespass, and Texas Parks and Wild Life Code § 61.002 concerning hunting on private property without an owner’s consent.”
“Second, the Court finds that plaintiffs’ claims are also sufficiently ‘actual and imminent’ to have constitutional standing. Both of the aforementioned harms are alleged to be both occurring and likely to continue occurring in the future.
“Third, the court finds that plaintiffs’ claims would be ‘redressed by a favorable ruling,’ whether under declaratory or injunctive relief, or mandamus, by providing the clarity plaintiffs seek as to the appropriate survey method.” (Citations omitted.)
O’Connor did dismiss the county plaintiffs’ Quiet Title Act claims, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
“While plaintiffs are correct that the Northern District of Texas has not explicitly held whether counties may assert a QTA claim under a parens patriae theory, precedent from both the Fifth Circuit and sister circuits instructs they may not,” the opinion states.
O’Connor was not persuaded by the county plaintiffs’ claims that the theory is applicable, since “both have a quasi-sovereign interest” in the health and well-being of residents.
O’Connor deferred ruling on the unsurveyed individual plaintiff’s Quiet Title Act claims, citing a lack of “clear precedent” concerning a published plat of estimated acreage claimed by federal officials and published in the Federal Register.
The judge granted dismissal of the plaintiffs’ Fifth Amendment claims, stating he is unaware of a “cognizable” challenge to a process “that in turn crippled the enforcement ease” of the law.
“In other words, while plaintiffs may challenge a particular law as unconstitutionally vague, it appears that plaintiffs are instead challenging an alleged unlawful process which then imposes uncertainty on an otherwise clear law,” he wrote.
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