Iowa Supreme Court deadlocks on constitutional ‘takings’ question in Madison County power line case

by Rox Laird | June 22, 2023

Six justices of the Iowa Supreme Court were deadlocked on a constitutional “takings” question in a case involving a plan by MidAmerican Energy to construct a power transmission line along a highway right-of-way that crosses a Madison County resident’s property.

MidAmerican applied for a franchise from the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB), which would give the power company the right to build an electric transmission line serving a Microsoft data center and two growing communities. The Board granted the franchise, and the Polk County District Court affirmed the decision after Madison County resident Linda Juckette sued.

In her appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, Juckette argued the transmission line is not necessary for a public use under Iowa Code section 478.4 because it would be built largely to serve a single user, Microsoft. Juckett also argued that using the right-of-way on her property would result in a taking of private property, triggering the requirement for just compensation under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, section 18, of the Iowa Constitution.

In a decision handed down June 16, the Iowa Supreme Court – reduced to six members with the recusal of Justice Edward Mansfield – agreed with the District Court on the statutory question but was evenly divided on the constitutional question. The opinion for the Court was written by Justice David May and joined by all participating justices.

On the question of MidAmerican’s right to build the transmission line on the right of way along a Madison County highway, the Court said the utility company met the requirements of Iowa Code Chapter 478, which sets out regulation of electric transmission lines.

“As to the specific question before us, we have long recognized that ‘the transmission of electricity to the public constitutes a public use as contemplated by section 478.4,’” May wrote. “And the record contains substantial evidence that MidAmerican’s proposed transmission lines are necessary to increase reliability and accommodate anticipated growth in and around Cumming and West Des Moines. So, like the district court, we affirm the IUB’s findings that the transmission lines are ‘necessary to serve a public use’ as required by Iowa Code section 478.4.”

While Juckette argued that the transmission line is more private than public because it is designed to serve a single customer, the Court said the record in the case shows that the power line will also benefit current and future power customers.

The six participating justices were evenly divided, however, on Juckette’s argument that MidAmerican at least must compensate her for the taking of her property in the highway right of way that crosses her land.

Chief Justice Susan Christensen, Justice Matthew McDermott, and Justice May would have found the transmission line construction would constitute a taking; Justices Thomas Waterman, Christopher McDonald, and Dana Oxley disagreed and would have found no taking under the relevant constitutional standards. The justices did not submit opinions explaining their reasoning on either side of the constitutional issue. Instead, Justice May’s opinion for the Court simply noted the disagreement and the lack of a majority ruling as to that portion of the appeal. As a result, the decision of the district court rejecting the takings argument was affirmed by operation of law.






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On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog is devoted to appellate litigation with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


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