By: Mary Colchin Johndroe*
On May 27, 2016, the Texas Supreme Court issued a seminal case in Texas condemnation jurisprudence. In the case of In re Lazy W District No. 1, the governmental landowner filed a plea to the jurisdiction before a scheduled commissioners’ hearing, asserting immunity and requesting that commissioners’ appointments be vacated. In re Lazy W District No. 1, ____ S.W.3d _______, No. 15-0117, 2016 WL 3157559 at *2 (Tex. 2016). The trial court vacated its appointments and issued an order declining to appoint commissioners before hearing and ruling on the plea to the jurisdiction. Id. The condemnor, the Tarrant Regional Water District, filed a petition for mandamus which was granted. Id.
However, the Texas Supreme Court granted mandamus relief for the landowner, holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion. Id. at *4. “Courts always have jurisdiction to determine their own jurisdiction.” Id., citing Houston Mun. Emp. Pension Sys. v. Ferrell, 248 S.W.3d 151, 158 (Tex. 2007) (emphasis added). A trial court “must determine at its earliest opportunity whether it has the constitutional or statutory authority to decide the case before allowing the litigation to proceed.” Id., citing Tex. Dept. of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004).
The Property Code does not limit the trial court’s power or responsibility to determine its jurisdiction, nor do we think it could.
Texas courts have also made preliminary findings as to jurisdictional right-to-take issues, denying condemnors access to survey or otherwise take possession of a landowner’s property. Crosstex NGL Pipeline, LP v. Reins Road Farms-1, Ltd., 404 S.W.3d 754, 756 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2013, no pet.); In re Crosstex NGL Pipeline, LP, No. 09-13-00168-CV, 2013 WL 2444192 (Tex. App.—Beaumont, May 30, 2013, orig. proceeding); In re Texas Rice Land Partners, Ltd., 402 S.W.3d 334, 340 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2013, mand. denied); Texas Rice Land Partners, Ltd. v. Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas, LLC, 363 S.W.3d 192 (Tex. 2012); Seals v. Upper Trinity Regional Water Dist., 145 S.W.3d 291 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2004, pet. dismissed).
In fact, one court found that a preliminary finding as to power of eminent domain was required prior to taking possession, despite prior deposit of the commissioners’ award. In re Texas Rice, 402 S.W.3d at 340 (emphasis added).
Mary Colchin Johndroe will discuss the In re Lazy W District No. 1 case and other condemnation cases of interest in the presentation “Appellate Dilemmas In Eminent Domain – Right-To-Take Challenges, Expert Methodology, And Damages,” at the 10th Annual CLE International Eminent Domain Conference on September 15-16, 2016 at The Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas.
*Mary Colchin Johndroe is a Partner at Cantey Hanger LLP in Fort Worth, Texas. Her principal practice areas include Eminent Domain/Property Rights, Construction, and Litigation. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org / 817-877-2810. Her bio may be found at http://www.canteyhanger.com/attorneys/mary-colchin-johndroe/.