The issue determined by the Texas Supreme Court in In re Lazy W District No. 1, No. 15-0117 (May 27, 2016), was whether -- in a case where one governmental entity is trying to condemn another governmental entity's property -- the trial court must resolve the power to take issue before or after the special commissioners determine value. This was, apparently, an issue in Texas.
Here is the court's description of the case:
The Water District offered the Lazy W $169,218 for the easement, and when the offer was rejected, petitioned for condemnation in the district court. The day after the petition was filed, without notice to the Lazy W, the district court appointed three special commissioners to determine the value of the proposed easement. When the Lazy W learned of the order, and before the commissioners’ hearing, it filed a plea to the jurisdiction, asserting its immunity as a governmental entity and requesting that the appointments be vacated and the petition dismissed. The district court vacated its appointment of the special commissioners and, after briefing and argument, issued an order declining to appoint special commissioners before hearing and ruling on the Lazy W’s plea.The Water District sought mandamus relief in the court of appeals. That court held that “the trial court was without jurisdiction to refuse to appoint special commissioners”, that the Lazy W’s plea of immunity was premature, and that the trial court’s only course was to ignore the plea until after an objection to the commissioners’ award. The court of appeals directed the trial court to appoint special commissioners and allow them to proceed.
Slip op. at 4.
The court held the trial court needs to determine whether the property-owning governmental entity has immunity by virtue of its status as a governmental entity, before the administrative process with the commissioners determines value. This is a matter of subject matter jurisdiction, and "[c]ourts always have jurisdiction to determine their own jurisdiction." Slip op. at 9.
Issue definitively resolved, and in a way that we approve. From a purely practical standpoint, it does make more sense to determine immunity and power to take before the commissioners start working.
But the really good part of the opinion (in our opinion) is this bit, detailing how and why the property-owning Lazy W Municipal Utility District came to be:
The proposed route crosses a corner of the 1,000-acre Lazy W Ranch located some five miles northwest of the City of Athens in Henderson County. Project plans call for a 150-foot-wide underground easement, about 3,375 feet long, covering 11.623 acres of the Ranch. The Ranch’s principal, Monty Bennett, a Dallas hotelier, opposed running the pipeline through the Ranch and promised to “vigorously fight” it. In 2011, he obtained legislation creating the Lazy W District No. 1 (“the Lazy W”), a municipal utility district. The Lazy W is comprised entirely of the Ranch, which it acquired in 2013. It owns no other property. Bennett is president of the Lazy W’s board of directors. In March 2013, Bennett sued the Water District for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act. A divided court of appeals dismissed the action on the ground that the Water District was immune from suit. Also in 2013, Bennett supported a slate of three candidates for the Water District’s five-member board, two of whom lost to incumbents. In 2015, he tried again, unsuccessfully, to replace two incumbent board members who support the Project’s use of the Ranch. Bennett also dedicated a small cemetery on the Ranch in the proposed path of the pipeline to thwart the Water District’s plan.
Slip op. at 2-3 (footnotes omitted).
The other noteworthy part of the opinion (pun intended) - all citations in footnotes. Bryan Garner would approve.