ETSI Pipeline Project v. Missouri

484 U. S. 495

February 23, 1988

Lake Oahe is a reservoir in South Dakota which was created by damming up the Missouri River. A planned pipeline would have drawn water from the lake, but government approval was needed first. The Secretary of Interior granted a permit for this ETSI Pipeline project, but Missouri and other states sued, claiming that the apposite law required the Secretary of the Army to approve the permit instead of the Secretary of Interior.

White wrote for a unanimous Court (Kennedy did not participate). The opinion was much longer than it needed to be, because if there were ever an open-and-shut case, this was it. The statute at issue flatly left the Secretary of the Army as the final arbiter. The Interior Department tried to rely on some vague language in section 9 of the act, but White demolished this with recourse to legislative history and close textual parsing. As a last resort, the Interior Department said that the government should defer to its goofy interpretation, but White said that there could be no deference when the interpretation contradicted the statute on its face. I’m frankly baffled as to why the Court even decided this case, given that it was affirming the lower court. In my year end review, this will probably get a mention as ‘easiest case of the term.’

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