The Supreme Court of the United States ruled against Florida in a water law dispute with Georgia on Thursday. The unanimous opinion was authored by Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
The case presents a somewhat uncommon instance of the high court’s original jurisdiction—the ability to hear and decide certain disputes that never go before a lower court. This authority is delineated in the U.S. Constitution and via statute. Germane to the case stylized as Florida v. Georgia, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over the equitable apportionment of interstate waters.
Originally filed in 2013, Florida accused Georgia of using too much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. The Peach State’s alleged overconsumption, in turn, decimated the Sunshine State’s local oyster population, Florida claimed. But after several inquiries over several years, evidence suggested Florida ignored conservation science and fished its own rivers to death.
In interstate water disputes, a state must meet a fairly exacting standard in order to obtain the relief requested. The court noted that this standard is “much greater” than the standard for a private party due to “the weighty and competing sovereign interests at issue.” Here, Florida had to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that Georgia was the cause of their oyster problems.
The Supreme Court defers to water law experts in these sorts of cases. Some water law experts spend their careers working on water law as river masters. In this case, however, two separate special masters were appointed to delve into the depths of Florida’s claims. Each of them spent multiple months and reached the same conclusion—though for different procedural reasons. In the first instance, the Supreme Court took some exception to the special master’s findings and Justice Stephen Breyer penned a lengthy 2018 opinion that gave Florida another chance to prove their case. In comments announcing the decision, Breyer also suggested people listen to Alan Jackson‘s 1992 hit “Chattahoochee.”
Thursday’s opinion was a much easier call for the court.
“Relevant here, the Special Master concluded that Florida failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption caused serious harm to Florida’s oyster fisheries or its river wildlife and plant life,” Barrett tidily notes.
The newest justice described each sides’ position:
Florida pins the collapse on Georgia through a multistep causal chain. It argues that Georgia’s unreasonable agricultural water consumption caused sustained low flows in the Apalachicola River; that these low flows increased the Bay’s salinity; and that higher salinity in the Bay attracted droves of saltwater oyster predators and disease, ultimately decimating the oyster population.
Georgia points to a more direct cause—Florida’s mismanagement of its oyster fisheries. According to Georgia, Florida caused the collapse by overharvesting oysters and failing to replace harvested oyster shells. And even if low flows contributed at all, Georgia says, they were driven by climatic changes and other factors, not its upstream consumption.
Florida, however, readily admitted that authorities “allowed unprecedented levels of oyster harvesting” immediately prior to the colony’s collapse.
“In 2011 and 2012, oyster harvests from the Bay were larger than in any other year on record,” the opinion notes. “That was in part because Florida loosened various harvesting restrictions out of fear—ultimately unrealized—that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would contaminate its oyster fisheries.” One of Florida’s own lead witnesses later admitted that the state’s own management practices “bent” their fisheries until they “broke.”
And, when it came time to proactively replenish those prized and important oyster bars via the process known as “reshelling,” Florida skimped.
“Reshelling is a century-old oyster management practice that involves replacing harvested oyster shells with clean shells, which can serve as habitat for young oysters,” Barrett explains. “Yet in the years before the collapse, while Florida was harvesting oysters at a record pace, it was simultaneously reshelling its oyster bars at a historically low rate.”
During the second trial, Georgia produced expert testimony that attributed Florida’s own practices to the collapse. Florida’s own expert during that trial also inadvertently made the case for the opposing side by showcasing a model that showed the relief requested wouldn’t really help solve the oyster problem. In the end, Florida had to rely on a multi-step argument that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption contributed to high saline levels which led to exceedingly high oyster predation.
“Given these confounding factors, we do not think that Florida’s evidence of high salinity and predation overcomes the data and modeling of its own experts, which show that Georgia’s consumption had little to no impact on the Bay’s oyster population,” the court noted in a subtle dig at Florida’s trial strategy.
The special master again ruled in Georgia’s favor; Florida again took exception. The Supreme Court dismissed those concerns.
“Considering the record as a whole, Florida has not shown that it is ‘highly probable’ that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption played more than a trivial role in the collapse of Florida’s oyster fisheries,” Barrett wrote. “Florida therefore has failed to carry its burden of proving causation by clear and convincing evidence.”
[image via Alex Wong/Getty Images]
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