Sporhase v. Nebraska ex rel. Douglas
It can be tough to untangle the web of rules that makes up the modern interpretation of the Interstate Commerce clause. In Sporhase v. Nebraska ex rel. Douglas, a law in the state of Nebraska was challenged at the Supreme Court level. This law, which pertained to withdrawing groundwater in the state of Nebraska and transporting it to other states, was challenged by a person with land on both sides of the border. The question in this case was whether the state of Nebraska could meet the government's strict scrutiny standards for creating such a regulation.
First: A Word on “Ex Rel”
The case of Sporhase v. Nebraska ex rel. Douglas may seem at first glance to have a somewhat strange name. The “ex rel.” portion of the case title refers to the fact that the state is arguing the claim on behalf of Douglas. For the purposes of making it easier for citizens to bring suits regarding environmental laws (which every citizen has a small stake in), many states allow ex rel. relationships between the state and petitioners whose case involves a violation of an environmental law.
The Provisions of the Law
According to the state law in Nebraska that was challenged in Sporhase v. Nebraska ex rel. Douglas, groundwater was not permitted to be transported out of the state unless it met several requirements. The Department of Water Resources had to find that the removal of the groundwater was reasonable, and would not have a negative impact on the future use of groundwater or be detrimental in any other way to the public. The state the groundwater was being exported to also had to sign a reciprocal agreement with the state of Nebraska allowing for its groundwater to be exported to Nebraska.
How The Case Began
The case in Sporhase v. Nebraska ex rel. Douglas began with a man who had land that crossed the state border from Nebraska to Colorado. The man, Sporhase, was a farmer, and he pumped water from wells in Nebraska that were used in order to irrigate the fields on both sides of the state border. Because the state of Colorado, which had water shortage problems, forbade all export of groundwater from the state, no reciprocity deal was possible and this put Sporhase outside of the bounds of the law every time he watered his fields.
Sporhase went to state court in Nebraska to get an injunction against the law, saying that it was illegal according to the powers granted to Congress rather than the states in the Interstate Commerce Clause. Both the trial court and Nebraska Supreme Court agreed with Sporhase and granted him the injunction.
The Supreme Court's Decision
According to the decision of the Supreme Court in Sporhase v. Nebraska ex rel. Douglas, there was no compelling state interest for the reciprocity agreement. Since the public welfare and the conservation of groundwater were already required by the statute, the reciprocity agreement simply constituted an illegal restraint of interstate commerce that did not narrowly serve the purpose that the state had put forth for the law. The reciprocity agreement portion of Colorado's law was therefore determined unconstitutional, allowing Sporhase to irrigate his fields in peace.