Here's a case about eminent domain and pipelines, but which focuses more on the court's jurisdiction than on the eminent domain aspects.
In Ameren Transmission Co. of Illinois v. Hutchings, No. 122973 (Oct. 18, 2018), the Illinois Supreme Court held that Illinois circuit courts -- that state's courts of general jurisdiction -- do not have jurisdiction to consider property owners' procedural due process defenses in an eminent domain action. Instead, if they had earlier challenged the certificate of public convenience in administrative proceedings and raised the due process argument there, their only avenue of judicial review was in the Illinois court of appeals.
Here's the short story: Ameren filed eminent domain actions in Illinois circuit court to condemn rights of way for an energy line. As a precursor to that, Ameren sought certificates of public convenience from the Illinois Commerce Commission. The Commission sent notice of the route to affected landowners, some of whom proposed their own alternative route that would not require their land, because the line would be relocated to nearby properties.
The owners of those properties did not receive notice that their land was possibly subject to acquisition. They intervened in the Commission proceedings alleging that the lack of notice was a deprivation of their due process rights. The Commission rejected the argument, and that conclusion was affirmed on direct appeal to the Illinois court of appeals.
That's when Ameren instituted the condemnation actions we mentioned above. The landowners moved to dismiss, arguing that their due process rights were not respected during the Commission proceedings because they never received notice that their properties would be affected by the energy line which the Commission ultimately approved. The circuit court agreed, concluding that the statute which governs Commission proceedings was unconstitutional because it lacks a notice requirement. The statute requires that landowners subject to the energy line be provided notice, but it doesn't require that owners of land on alternative routes be informed.
On appeal, the majority of the Illinois Supreme Court made short work of the circuit court's ruling. Not because it disagreed with the due process conclusion, but because the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to make the ruling.
The majority acknowledged that circuit courts are courts of general jurisdiction, and usually can consider all matters brought before them. Like eminent domain cases and defenses thereto. But (and there's always a "but" isn't there?) the legislature can proscribe that jurisdiction and direct that challenges to Commission action be taken in the courts of appeals, and not the circuit courts, something the legislature did here. Thus, the Illinois court of appeals had jurisdiction to review actions of the Commission that are alleged to be in violation of the constitution. The Supreme Court held:
The problem here is that the circuit court below was not exercising the special statutory jurisdiction conferred by section 10-201 when it determined that the Commission’s proceedings in relation to the Project were in violation of due process. Rather, it was sitting as a court of general jurisdiction charged with adjudicating the merits of ATXI’s eminent domain complaints. As such, the circuit court below had no authority whatsoever to review either the Commission’s decision itself or whether the proceedings leading up to that decision “were in violation of the State or federal constitution or laws.” Section 10-201 specifically reserves such questions for the appellate court exercising its statutory power of direct administrative review, which is exactly what the Adams County court was doing back in 2015 when it considered and rejected the very same due process challenge at issue here. Adams County, 2015 IL App (4th) 130907, ¶¶ 78-80. In other words, there is an explicit statutory scheme in place for reviewing the legality and constitutionality of the Commission’s administrative proceedings, and the subsequent eminent domain litigation forms no part of it.
Slip op. at 6.
Game, set, match. But one justice concurred, making a good point:
The majority’s flawed analysis raises significant threats to individual rights. The majority’s approach would allow for the following possibility: a utility petitions the Commission for a certificate of public necessity to acquire two lots owned by Alice and Brian. Alice is not notified of the Commission proceedings and does not participate in them. Brian is notified of the proceedings and challenges them, including appealing the decision to the appellate court. The appellate court rejects Brian’s challenge and upholds the Commission’s order. The utility initiates eminent domain proceedings against both Alice and Brian. Alice argues that the statute that allowed the utility to petition for a certificate without notifying her unconstitutionally deprived her of due process of law. Under the majority’s approach, the circuit court would lack jurisdiction to hear this argument but would retain jurisdiction over the eminent domain proceedings. Assuming for the moment that Alice had the right to participate in the Commission proceedings, the circuit court would authorize the utility to seize Alice’s land even though Alice never had the opportunity to participate in those proceedings, regardless of the Public Utility Act’s constitutionality.
Slip op. at 12-13.
In short, she argued that sometimes, an eminent domain action in circuit court is the first and only place for a property owner to pose these type of challenges. We've seen similar themes (although in land use cases, not eminent domain cases), where the government whipsaws the property owner, arguing that administrative res judicata precludes an owner who participates in administrative procedures from raising claims in a subsequent lawsuit, and also arguing that owners who forego participating in administrative claims in order to preserve their right to an original jurisdiction lawsuit are precluded because they should have participated in the administrative proceeding. Darned if you do, darned if you don't.
Plus, the concurring justice saw an easier way to reach the same result here, one that also occurred to us: since the landowners affirmatively raised their due process claims in the Commission and the court of appeals affirmed, why were they not precluded as a matter of collateral estoppel from raising the claim again in the eminent domain action? Count us as convinced.
One other justice partially concurred and dissented, arguing that issue preclusion didn't apply.