High-speed rail lawsuits pit CA vs. USA

High-speed rail lawsuits pit CA vs. USA


train wreckLike the famous 1860s race to build a railroad across America to California, an epic battle is shaping up over the state’s high-speed rail project. Only this time it’s a legal contest of federal vs. state jurisdiction. It may eventually take the highest law in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court, to sort it all out.

The Dec. 10, the California Supreme Court decided to take up the matter of two clashing  rulings by lower courts:

  • On the one hand, in the case Town of Atherton vs. High-Speed Rail Authority, the 3rd Appellate District Court in Sacramento issued a ruling on July 24, 2014 which held federal preemption did not apply to a state-owned rail project.
  • On the other hand, in the case of Friends of the Eel River vs. North Coast Railroad Authority et al. ruling on Sept. 29, 2014, the 1st Appellate District Court in San Francisco issued a ruling which held federal pre-emption did apply to a state-owned railroad. In fact, the 1st Appellate District Court specifically referred to the Atherton case.  


Then on Nov. 7, the Friends of Eel River filed a request with the California Supreme Court for review, as there were two opposing precedent cases out there, which could cause confusion. According to the group’s summary of the case, “At the earliest, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to grant certification by early January 2015.”

And it was for the Friends of Eel Valley case, specifically, that the California Supreme Court granted review on Dec. 10. But both it and the Atherton case are involved, as the Thomas Law Group summarized in its review of the Friends of Eel Valley case:

“The court distinguished this case from the Third District’s recent decision in Town of Atherton v. California High Speed Rail Authority…. The court acknowledged the similar facts and different result from Atherton, but respectfully disagreed with that court’s analysis.”

Since the Supreme Court agreed to take the case, the 1st Appellate District Court’s decision  in the Friends of Eel River case has been “depublished,” meaning it no longer could be used as a precedent. For now – and pending Supreme Court action — that leaves only the Town of Atherton case as the only precedent concerning states’ rights on the environment vs. federal control.

Surface Transportation Board action

Which brings us all the way back to the federal powers being exercised by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and its Dec. 12 action asserting federal control. How will they influence the decision by the California Supreme Court?

As CalWatchdog.com reported, the STB’s action struck a blow for federal bureaucratic supremacy when it held federal law took precedence over the California’s Environmental Quality Act.

Attorney Doug Carstens represents Kings County, Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability and the Kings County Farm Bureau. He told CalWatchdog.com:

“It is unclear what impact, if any, the STB opinion will have on the state court proceedings. It is possible that California courts will adhere to California appellate law in the form of the Town of Atherton case’s decision that there is no preemption of CEQA for high-speed rail. The effort by the Authority to obtain federally-granted immunity from the state’s premier environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, may have the effect of introducing confusion and uncertainty into the process of developing the project.”

It would be a strange situation indeed if the state Supreme Court were to rule against upholding the state’s environmental law and give the nod to federal preemption.

Kathy Hamilton is the Ralph Nader of high-speed rail, continually uncovering hidden aspects of the project and revealing them to the public.  She started writing in order to tell local communities how the project affects them and her reach grew statewide.  She has written more than 225 articles on high-speed rail and attended hundreds of state and local meetings. She is a board member of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail; has testified at government hearings; has provided public testimony and court declarations on public records act requests; has given public testimony; and has provided transcripts for the validation of court cases. 


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  1. Nancy Keeler
    Nancy Keeler 18 December, 2014, 09:09

    Over and above the environmental concerns and eminent domain issues, what about the fact that this monstrosity is not what people voted for. It will NOT be high speed and the costs have skyrocketed to an amount that people would not agree with.

    Reply this comment
  2. Kathy Hamilton
    Kathy Hamilton 19 December, 2014, 14:57

    Here’s the catch Nancy, they cannot use bond money for construction and as long as they’re not, they are free to do as they please. Prop 1A authorized the construction using HSR bond funds with certain caveats. But the Authority is using Federal money and cap-and-trade funds. They can’t use bond funds because they haven’t completed all the environmental work nor located the funds to build the first 300 miles.

    The thing I find most interesting is the environmental community hasn’t realized they have not protested funding this project with cap-and-trade funds meant to improve the environment. The Authority has a ruling now from a federal agency saying they don’t have to follow state environmental laws. Interesting indeed.

    Reply this comment
  3. Hondo
    Hondo 21 December, 2014, 19:38

    I believe this project will end being like the ‘Big Dig’ in Boston only exponentially worse. Don’t expect much money from the Repubs in Washington. There is only so much they can steal from cap and trade. And the epic unfunded pensions will keep the state from spending enough money on that project. Their only hope is going back to the public with another tax hike. Good luck there.
    At best, riders from Fresno to Bakersfield are gonna get a shiny, new un- godly expensive commuter system.
    The section from Bakersfield to LA, over those insane, earthquake prone, condor infested Tehachapi mountains, will be a legal, environmental, and engineering nightmare. After a couple condors get blown to feathers while munching on some dead rabbit on the tracks, will the green peace nuts file a lawsuit? They’re too busy destroying the Nazca lines in South America.
    This is the slowest motion train wreck I’ve ever seen.

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