Justia Colorado Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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A series of appeals concerned a dispute over competing rights to irrigation tail and waste water that collected in a borrow ditch. The Colorado Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a driveway that interrupted the flow of water in the ditch rendered the sections of borrow ditch on either side of the driveway separate sources of water for purposes of the postponement doctrine. S. Cade and Bradley Huffaker and a neighboring landowner, Lee Crowther, filed competing applications for rights to this water. The Huffakers filed their application in 2013; Crowther filed his in 2016. The Huffakers argued that under the postponement doctrine, they were entitled to the senior right in the borrow ditch water because they filed their application first. The water court held that the postponement doctrine did not apply here because it concluded the water rights claimed by the Huffakers and Crowther did not derive from the same source. Therefore, the court held that Crowther’s right to divert water at the culvert was not junior to the Huffakers’ right, even though Crowther’s application was filed two and a half years after the Huffakers’ application. The Huffakers appealed, again contending that the postponement doctrine applied to determine the priority of the applicants’ competing rights to the water in the borrow ditch, and that they were entitled to the senior priority because they filed their application first. They further argued the collection area of their absolute water right began not at the driveway, but farther south (upstream) at the same point as Crowther’s right. The Supreme Court agreed with both contentions and reversed the water court. View "Concerning the Application for Water Rights of S. Cade Huffaker" on Justia Law

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Respondents were four Ranch owners who, with notice of the Lake Fork Hunting and Fishing Club’s (the Club) restrictive covenants and bylaws, purchased deeds conferring record title to their respective Ranches. In 2015, the Hinsdale County Assessor conducted valuations of the Respondents’ Ranches and assessed property taxes to their parcels. Respondents protested these valuations and assessments to the Hinsdale County Board of Equalization (the BOE), which denied their petitions. Respondents then appealed the BOE’s determination to the Board of Assessment Appeals (the BAA), arguing that because of the Club’s restrictive covenants and bylaws, the Club was the true owner of those parcels and should have been held responsible for real property taxes. The BAA denied the Respondents’ appeal and affirmed the Assessor’s valuation of the Ranch parcels. The Ranch owners then appealed the BAA’s decision to the court of appeals, which reversed the BAA’s order. Given the extent of the Club’s control over the property, the court of appeals concluded that the Club was the true owner of the parcels for purposes of property taxation and viewed the Ranch owners’ interests as akin to mere licenses to conduct certain activities on the Club’s property. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed, finding Colorado’s property tax scheme reflected the legislative intent to assess property taxes to the record fee owners of real property. “Because Respondents voluntarily agreed to the restrictive covenants and bylaws that facilitate the collective use of their property for recreational purposes, we hold that they cannot rely on these same restrictive covenants and bylaws to avoid property tax liability that flows from their record title ownership.” Accordingly, the court of appeals erred in relying on the Club’s restrictive covenants and bylaws to conclude that the Club is the “owner” of the Ranch parcels and that the Ranch owners hold mere licenses to use Club grounds. The court further erred in holding that the Assessor therefore improperly valued the Respondents’ parcels. View "Hinsdale County v. HDH Partnership" on Justia Law

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The question presented by this appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court was a 1909 water rights decree adjudicated an enforceable water right for the Campbell Ditch in nine springs. Yamasaki Ring, LLC, which owned some of the Campbell Ditch’s water rights, asked the Court to answer the question in the affirmative. The Dills and the Pearces, who owned properties where water from the springs had been put to beneficial use since as early as 1903, urged the Court to answer the question in the negative. In two orders issued in 2016, the water court agreed with the Dills/Pearces and determined that the 1909 decree did not adjudicate a water right in the springs’ water because it did not set forth “the necessary information” for adjudication, including an appropriation date, a priority number, or quantification details. Therefore, the water court concluded the Campbell Ditch’s unquantifiable entitlement to “receive and conduct water” from the springs could not be enforced or administered against any adjudicated water rights. The Supreme Court agreed and therefore affirmed the water court’s judgment. View "Concerning the Application for Water Rights of Donald E. Dill, Cathie G. Dill, Jerry R. Pearce, and Frances M. Pearce in Fremont County" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on whether a water court had jurisdiction to consider a claim for inverse condemnation alleging a judicial taking of shares in a mutual ditch company. The water court dismissed plaintiff-appellant Sam Allen’s inverse condemnation claim, concluding that his claim was “grounded in ownership and the conveyance of that ownership, not use,” and therefore the claim was not a water matter within the exclusive jurisdiction of the water court. The Supreme Court agreed, and thus affirmed the water court’s dismissal order. View "Allen v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on whether the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission properly declined to engage in rulemaking to consider a rule by Respondents, a group of youth activists who proposed a rule that, among other things, would have precluded the Commission from issuing any permits for drilling oil and gas wells “unless the best available science demonstrates, and an independent, third-party organization confirms, that drilling can occur in a manner that does not cumulatively, with other actions, impair Colorado’s atmosphere, water, wildlife, and land resources, does not adversely impact human health, and does not contribute to climate change.” The Commission declined to engage in rulemaking to consider this proposed rule because, among other things: (1) the rule would have required the Commission to readjust the balance purportedly crafted by the General Assembly under the Act and conditioned new oil and gas drilling on a finding of no cumulative adverse impacts, both of which the Commission believed to be beyond its statutory authority; and (2) the Commission was already working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (“CDPHE”) to address the concerns to which the rule was directed and other Commission priorities took precedence over the proposed rulemaking at this time. Respondents challenged the Commission’s ruling in the Denver District Court, but that court ultimately upheld the Commission’s decision. Respondents appealed, and, in a split, published decision, a division of the court of appeals reversed the district court’s order. The Supreme Court concluded the Commission properly declined to engage in rulemaking to consider Respondents' proposed rule: (1) deferring to the agency's decision; (2) finding the Commission correctly determined that, under the applicable language of the Act, it could not properly adopt the rule proposed by Respondents; and (3) the Commission reasonably relied on the facts that it was already working with the CDPHE to address the concerns underlying Respondents’ proposed rule and that other Commission priorities took precedence at this time. View "Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission v. Martinez" on Justia Law

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Whites Corporation donated a conservation easement (CE), and transferred a portion of the resulting CE tax credit to John and Debra Medved. In 2006, the Medveds filed a return claiming the credit. In 2007, Whites Corporation claimed the credit. In 2011, the Colorado Department of Revenue (the Department) disallowed the credit in its entirety. The Medveds claimed the Department acted too late because their 2006 filing triggered the four-year limitations period within which the Department could invalidate a CE tax credit. The Department disagreed, claiming that Whites Corporation’s 2007 filing triggered the limitations period, and therefore the disallowance stood. The Colorado Supreme Court determined that the plain language of the applicable regulation meant the statute of limitations period began when the CE donor claimed the CE tax credit. This accrual applied to and bound any transferees of the credit. So, the limitations period here began when Whites Corporation filed its tax return in 2007, and the Department’s disallowance occurred before the period expired. The Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Medved" on Justia Law

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This case centered on Coors Brewing Company’s application to amend its decreed augmentation plans to authorize the reuse and successive use of return flows from water that Coors diverted out of priority pursuant to those plans. The City of Golden opposed this application, arguing that Coors could not proceed by amendment but had to adjudicate a new water right to reuse or make successive use of the return flows. The water court ruled: (1) any amount of water not beneficially used by Coors for the uses specified in its decreed augmentation plans had to be returned to the stream; (2) Coors’s decreed augmentation plans did not authorize the reuse or successive use of such water; and (3) Coors could not obtain the right to reuse or make successive use of such water by way of amendment to its augmentation plans but could only obtain such rights by adjudicating a new water right. Coors appealed, arguing that the water court erred: (1) by holding that Coors could not proceed by amendment but had to adjudicate a new water right; (2) by concluding that water unconsumed by Coors’s initial use had to be returned to the stream and was subject to appropriation by other water users; and (3) interpreting Coors’s augmentation plan decrees to require permanent dedication of return flows to the stream. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that in order to obtain the right to reuse and make successive use of the return flows at issue, Coors had to adjudicate a new water right and could not circumvent this requirement by amending its decreed augmentation plans. Furthermore, the Court held that the diversion of native, tributary water under an augmentation plan did not change its character. Accordingly, the general rule, providing that return flows belong to the stream, applied. Finally, the Court concluded the water court correctly construed Coors’s augmentation plans. View "Coors Brewing Co. v. City of Golden" on Justia Law

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This case arose from respondent Public Service Company of Colorado’s (“Xcel’s”) challenge to the City of Boulder’s attempt to create a light and power utility. Xcel argued that the ordinance establishing the utility, Ordinance No. 7969 (the “Utility Ordinance”), violated article XIII, section 178 of Boulder’s City Charter. Xcel thus sought a declaratory judgment deeming the Utility Ordinance “ultra vires, null, void, and of no effect.” Petitioners, the City of Boulder, its mayor, mayor pro tem, and city council members (collectively, “Boulder”), argued Xcel’s complaint was, in reality, a C.R.C.P. 106 challenge to a prior ordinance, Ordinance No. 7917 (the “Metrics Ordinance”), by which Boulder had concluded that it could meet certain metrics regarding the costs, efficiency, and reliability of such a utility. Boulder contended this challenge was untimely and thereby deprived the district court of jurisdiction to hear Xcel’s complaint. The district court agreed with Boulder and dismissed Xcel’s complaint. Xcel appealed, and in a unanimous, published decision, a division of the court of appeals vacated the district court’s judgment. As relevant here, the division, like the district court, presumed that Xcel was principally proceeding under C.R.C.P. 106. The division concluded, however, that neither the Metrics Ordinance nor the Utility Ordinance was final, and therefore, Xcel’s complaint was premature. The division thus vacated the district court’s judgment. Although the Colorado Supreme Court agreed with Boulder that the division erred, contrary to Boulder’s position and the premises on which the courts below proceeded, the Supreme Court agreed with Xcel that its complaint asserted a viable and timely claim seeking a declaration that the Utility Ordinance violated Boulder’s City Charter. Accordingly, the Supreme Court concluded the district court had jurisdiction to hear Xcel’s declaratory judgment claim challenging the Utility Ordinance, and remanded this case to allow that claim to proceed. View "City of Boulder v. Public Service Company of Colorado" on Justia Law

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The Jim Hutton Foundation (“Foundation”) owned surface-water rights in the Republican River Basin. The Foundation believed that permitted groundwater wells that people had begun to install in the underlying groundwater basin - the Northern High Plains Basin (“NHP Basin”) - were not in fact pumping designated groundwater, and were injuring its senior surface-water rights. The Foundation sued, hoping to alter the groundwater basin's boundaries to exclude any improperly permitted designated-groundwater wells. The Foundation filed this action in water court, arguing that a legislative amendment to the statutory process to challenge the designation of a groundwater basis, prohibited any challenge to alter a designated groundwater basin's boundaries to exclude a well that already received a permit. The Foundation claimed the amendment deprived surface-water users of the ability to petition the Commission to redraw the NHP Basin’s boundaries to exclude permitted well users upon a showing that groundwater was improperly designated when the NHP Basin’s designation became final. The water court dismissed this claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, concluding the Commission must first determine whether the water at issue is designated groundwater before subject matter jurisdiction will vest in the water court, meaning the Foundation’s constitutional claim could not become ripe until it satisfied the Commission that the water was not designated groundwater. The Foundation appealed. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the water court and concluded that, because jurisdiction did not vest in the water court until the Commission first determined the water at issue was not designated groundwater, the water court properly dismissed the claim. View "Jim Hutton Educ. Found. v. Rein" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's consideration centered on whether Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission (“the IEC”) had jurisdiction pursuant to article XXIX of the state constitution to hear a complaint based on allegations that then-Secretary of State Scott Gessler (“the Secretary”) breached the public trust by using money from his statutorily-provided discretionary fund for partisan and personal purposes. The IEC investigated the complaint, held a hearing, and determined that the Secretary’s conduct breached the public trust. The Secretary sought judicial review of the IEC’s ruling, arguing that the IEC lacked jurisdiction over the case. Both the district court and the court of appeals affirmed the IEC’s ruling. The Colorado Supreme Court held that relevant jurisdictional language in article XXIX, section 5 of the state constitution authorized the IEC to hear complaints involving ethical standards of conduct relating to activities that could allow covered individuals, including elected officials, to improperly benefit financially from their public employment. Furthermore, the Court held that section 24-18-103, C.R.S. (2017), was one such ethical standard of conduct which established the holding of public office or employment was a public trust, and that a public official “shall carry out his duties for the benefit of the people of the state.” Because the allegations against the Secretary clearly implicated this standard, the Court concluded the complaint fell within the IEC’s jurisdiction and rejected the Secretary’s jurisdictional and vagueness challenges. Additionally, the Court rejected the Secretary’s procedural due process claim because he failed to demonstrate that he suffered any prejudice as a result of the alleged violation. View "Gessler v. Smith" on Justia Law