Unanimous Supreme Court Rules Federal Government May Join Lawsuit Regarding Rio Grande Compact

On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down an unanimous opinion allowing the federal government to pursue claims in ongoing litigation between Texas and New Mexico regarding the Rio Grande Compact.

In 1938, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas entered an interstate compact to provide for the equitable apportionment of water flowing in the Rio Grande River. Congress granted its consent in 1939.

The compact specifies the amount of water Colorado must allow to flow to New Mexico and the amount New Mexico must allow to flow to a reservoir used to fulfill the federal government’s obligation to supply water to Mexico. The water stored in the reservoir is also used to supply water to downstream districts in Texas.

Texas initiated the litigation, claiming that New Mexico breached its compact obligations. More specifically, Texas claimed that New Mexico has been allowing New Mexico users to divert surface water and siphon groundwater thereby reducing Texas’s water supply and the apportionment Texas is entitled to under the compact. The federal government sought leave to intervene citing similar allegations.

New Mexico responded by filing a motion to dismiss, stating that the federal government did not have authority to enforce the compact’s terms.

In his opinion for the Court, Justice Gorsuch began his analysis with discussion of the Court’s original jurisdiction over disputes between states.

Justice Gorsuch also stated that, “Using that special authority [original jurisdiction], we have sometimes permitted the federal government to participate in compact suits to defend ‘distinctively federal interests’…”

The federal government’s claims were as follows:

  1. The compact is “inextricably intertwined” with downstream contracts;
  2. New Mexico has conceded that the federal government plays an “integral role” in the compact’s operation;
  3. A breach of the compact could interfere with the federal government’s ability to satisfy treaty obligations with Mexico; and
  4. The federal government has asserted claims in an existing action and seeks “substantially the same relief” as Texas.

The Court, persuaded that the federal government’s claims were sufficient, remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

While the Court did rule that the federal government may pursue its claims against New Mexico, Justice Gorsuch pointed out that the ruling did not determine whether the federal government could initiate an action:

“This case does not present the question whether the United States could initiate litigation to force a State to perform its obligations under the Compact or expand the scope of an existing controversy between States.”

While this ruling did clarify whether the federal government could join the existing litigation, U.S. News & World Report points out that “it could be years before the [C]ourt issues a ruling on the merits of the case.”