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United States v. Alpine Land & Reservoir Co.

Citation: 29 ELR 21120
(04/08/1999)

The court holds that a district court did not abuse its discretion in enjoining a state court from proceeding with appeals concerning a state engineer's grant of a water rights transfer application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The district court enjoined the state court because the state court proceeding interfered with the district court's exclusive jurisdiction to hear appeals regarding the water rights at issue. The court first holds that the district court's jurisdiction over disputes arising under the two decrees that govern the water rights at issue is continuing. The court has consistently interpreted the decrees to provide for federal district court review of decisions of the state engineer regarding applications to change the place of diversion or manner or place of use of water rights. Moreover, the FWS' transfer application comes within the scope of jurisdiction intended by the two decrees. The court also holds that the district court has exclusive jurisdiction because the water rights disputes are in rem actions and the district court gained jurisdiction over the res first. The fact that the state court asserted jurisdiction over the res before the district court is irrelevant. The federal district court had already asserted jurisdiction over the water rights in question when it adjudicated the decrees, and it has continued to retain such jurisdiction.

The court next holds that the Anti-Injunction Act does not bar the district court injunction in this case. A district court may enjoin a state court proceeding under the Act where necessary in aid of the district court's jurisdiction. Here, the district court properly invoked this exception because it was the first court to exercise jurisdiction over the real property at issue, and because it retained jurisdiction over the decrees. Consequently, the court then holds that there are no grounds to conclude that the district court abused its discretion in enjoining the state court proceeding.

Last, the court rejects the claim that the district court's order enjoining the state court proceeding amounted to direct federal district court review of a state court decision. The district court's decision amounted to a determination that it had exclusive jurisdiction over the matter at issue and that it needed to protect its exclusive jurisdiction. This decision did not rest on any error on the part of the state court in asserting jurisdiction.

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

Richard G. Campbell Jr.
Campbell & Stone
6880 S. McCarran Blvd., Ste. 8, Reno NV 89509
(775) 332-0707

Counsel for Defendant
Frankie Sue Del Papa, Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
Capitol Complex
100 N. Carson St., Carson City NV 89701
(702) 687-4170

Before Fletcher and McKeown, JJ.