Do federal judges have jurisdiction of state constitutional issues?
The question of whether a district federal judge has jurisdiction over state constitutional issues is now in the news. This week a federal district judge stepped into an issue involving legislation passed and signed by the Governor to approve oil pipeline routes within the state. In the ruling the judge declared the law unconstitutional under the Nebraska Constitution and the case now appears to be headed to the Nebraska Supreme Court though a final decision has not been made. Separate from the constitutional issue raised by the federal judge the question to be asked and answered is under what authority a federal judge has to rule on state constitutional issues. Federal judges could typically get involved with state constitutional issues if there was an appearance the constitution violated federal law, this does not appear to be the case at this point.
In reviewing the Nebraska Constitution section IV-20 identifies the powers and jurisdiction of the public service commission and is an important aspect concerning this ruling and possible appeal. One of the first paragraphs in this part of the Constitution it identifies the fact the legislature through specific legislation can divest or remove jurisdiction of the commission through specific legislation which it appears to be the case in this issue. The Constitution specifically cited a court case that allowed such restriction.
Public service commissions throughout the United States provide critical reviews and decisions regarding public service companies but it does not necessarily mean the jurisdiction cannot be altered by legislation within each state. Laws are generated all the time and make revisions to the authority and jurisdiction of departments, agencies and commissions all the time and this legislation is no different. The legislation is not dissolving the commission it is only modifying the authority it has over certain public service decisions with this specific legislation.
In another aspect under section IV-20 of the Nebraska Constitution it identifies pipeline carriers are subject to regulation by the State Railway Commission but they are not required to obtain a certificate of public convenience and necessity under the Motor Carrier Act and cites an additional case regarding this section of the constitution. Environmentalists claim the pipeline would contribute to global warming and fear it could hurt their water supply. This claim which was the basis for the lawsuit by landowners is in conflict with the latest State Department report dated January 31, 2014 that it concluded it would unlikely alter global greenhouse gas emissions.
I understand the need to have any project such as the XL pipeline to be environmentally friendly but based on the latest report from the State Department it appears the environmental aspects or impacts have been addressed. The judge in making the decision to declare a law unconstitutional based on claims which are not supported by the latest information was either now aware of the new information or felt it had no bearing on his decision. It is understood that the decision was based on the language in the Nebraska Constitution but there is legislative authority to pass the legislation which the Governor signed. The legislation is specific as called for in the Constitution. It is hoped the Nebraska Supreme Court would set to rest the question of constitutionality of the legislation passed to be within the Constitution. It is also hoped that the Nebraska Supreme Court if it is within its authority to identify in their decision there was no violation of any federal law and therefore the decision by the District Federal Judge did not have the jurisdiction to make a ruling on the case.