Monday, November 28, 2011

Lewis and Clark's Expedition to the Supreme Court

Charlottesville's own Meriwether Lewis will take center-stage on this year's docket at the United States Supreme Court.

In PPL Montana v. Montana, the Supreme Court will examine the question of whether portions of three Montana rivers are owned by a power company (PPL Montana) or the state itself.  In addition to the legal ramifications, there is a significant sum of money at stake: if the state owns the riverbeds, then the company owes the state back-rent of $53 million.

The case turns on whether the rivers are "navigable".


Supreme Court precedent holds that the riverbeds of rivers that were navigable at the time of statehood are owned by the states. 

Now, the Court must decide whether the existing rule applies to portions of rivers that were navigable (Montana's position) or only if the entire river was navigable (the power company's position).


Meriwether Lewis is relevant to the dispute because his journals from the watershed expedition of 1803 (pun intended?) include several entries describing the Great Falls of the Missouri -- and the extent to which the waterfalls inhibited the expedition's progress (thereby making the river unnavigable).  Interestingly, attorneys on both sides of the case argue that Lewis's journals support their position.

Robert Barnes's article about the case, in this morning's Washington Post (A River Runs Through It, and So Might Lewis and Clark), is here.


And speaking of Messrs. Lewis and Clark: the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center (their website is here) has broken ground on its new building at Darden Towe Park, and the Center anticipates the building will open in 2012. 

The Lewis and Clark Statue at the Intersection of Main and Ridge Streets