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United States v. Las Cruces, City of

Citation: 32 ELR 20698
No. Nos. 00-2451 et al., 289 F.3d 1170/(10th Cir., 04/30/2002)

The court vacates a district court decision dismissing the United States' suit to quiet title to water rights in a portion of the Rio Grande River. The dispute centers around the Rio Grande Reclamation Project, and after several attempts to dismiss water adjudications in state court, the United States sued to quiet its title to project water in federal court. The district court dismissed the suit under the "abstention" doctrine of Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976). Alternatively, it dismissed the U.S. complaint on the ground that it had discretion to dismiss a declaratory judgment action under Brillhart v. Excess Insurance Co. of America, 316 U.S. 491 (1942). The court first holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it refused to exercise jurisdiction under Brillhart. The requested federal declaratory relief would not settle the entire controversy over water rights or even clarify the relative rights of the parties to the Rio Grande water. Further, the government may be seeking a declaratory remedy for the purpose of procedural fencing, and federal jurisdiction could cause friction between the federal and state courts. In addition, the state adjudications would provide a more effective remedy to the general controversy than the federal declaratory judgment action. Because the district court properly applied Brillhart, it is unnecessary to determine whether it erred in dismissing the case under Colorado River. The court holds, however, that the district court did not articulate why it decided to dismiss the action rather than stay it. On remand, the district court must consider whether the preferable remedy is to stay the federal proceedings.

The full text of this decision is available from ELR (16 pp., ELR Order No. L-519).

Counsel for Plaintiff
Andrew C. Mergen
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Counsel for Defendants
Jay F. Stein
Stein & Brockmann
460 St. Michael's Dr., Ste. 603, Santa Fe NM 87505
(505) 983-3880

[OPINION OMITTED BY PUBLISHER IN ORIGINAL SOURCE]