Federal Circuit Takings Case: Set Up for Supreme Court Review

Casitas Municipal Water v. US (Fed. Cir. 2009) (en banc denial) (MAYER, SCHALL , and MOORE*)

Casitas is not a patent case, it is a takings case involving regulatory restrictions on water use imposed by US Government. The Federal Circuit has jurisdiction over this takings claim against the US Government because it is on appeal from the Court of Federal Claims (CFC). Although the Federal Circuit has denied the Federal Government’s motion for en banc rehearing, a set of diverging opinions sets this case in position for likely Supreme Court review.

History: The Ventura River Project provides water supply to Ventura County, California. In 1956, the US Government granted the local government the “perpetual right to use all water that becomes available through the construction and operation of the Project.” Then, in 1997, steelhead trout living in the Project became an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the US Government required that Casitas construct a fish ladder and divert water over the fish ladder. Casitas complied, but filed suit in the CFC alleging that the Federal Government had taken its property without just compensation (and also under breach of contract). The CFC classified the Government action as “regulatory” rather than a “physical.” In takings law, compensation for regulatory takings is much more difficult to obtain, and Casitas admitted that it could not prove the required elements. This conclusion followed the Federal Government argument that “it did not seize, appropriate, divert, or impound any water, but merely required water to be left in the stream.”

Appeal: On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed. Writing for the majority, Judge Moore concluded “that the government physically appropriated water that Casitas held a usufructuary right in.”

Here, the government admits for the purposes of summary judgment that it required Casitas to build the fish ladder facility, which is a man-made concrete structure that was not a portion of the existing … The government also admits that the operation of the fish ladder required water, which prior to the fish ladder’s construction flowed into the Casitas Reservoir … Specifically, the government admits that the operation of the fish ladder includes closing the overshot gate …and that the closure of this gate causes water that would have gone into the Casitas Reservoir via the Robles-Casitas Canal to be diverted into the fish ladder. … These admissions make clear that the government did not merely require some water to remain in stream, but instead actively caused the physical diversion of water away from the Robles-Casitas Canal … and towards the fish ladder, thus reducing Casitas’ water supply.

In dissent, Judge Mayer rejected the physical takings argument. At base, he argued, Casitas does not actually own the water. Rather, under California law, all water sources within California “belong to the public.” Even if Casitas did own the water flow, Mayer would have seen the endangered species requirements as regulatory because the requirements simply force a specific use of the water rather than take it away.

En Banc Rehearing: In what looks like a 7-5 (or 6-6) vote, the Federal Circuit denied a rehearing en banc. Judge Moore wrote a new opinion defending her original approach in the original opinion. In particular, Judge Moore focused on the “facts as presented” in the case. “[T]he government conceded (1) that Casitas had a property right in the water diverted from the Ventura River, and (2) that the government required Casitas to build and operate the fish ladder in such a way as to permanently appropriate water in which Casitas had the conceded property right.” Based on those two facts, the holding of a physical takings was easy.

Judge Gajarsa would have heard the case en banc. Gajarsa (joined by Chief Judge Michel and Judge Dyk) saw the taking as clearly regulatory in form because nothing had actually been taken by the US Government.

This denial implicates fundamental questions regarding takings law. The panel majority’s opinion suggests that a government action can be construed to be a physical taking even if no physical proprietary interest has actually been taken by the United States. This is contrary to present Supreme Court law and contrary to our case law. Accepting this analysis of the panel majority eliminates the fine distinction and balance that has been established by the Supreme Court between physical and regulatory takings. Moreover, it eliminates the ability of the legislature to provide for limited and parsimonious legislation protecting endangered species.


  • Republican vs. Democrat: Moore’s position is clearly one of stronger property rights while Gajarsa/Mayer’s position is in favor of regulatory power of the government. It appears that this decision falls along political lines. Those thinking of the regulation as a physical taking (Moore, Schall, Rader, JJ) are all Republican appointees. Three of the five thinking of the regulation as regulatory in nature are Democratic appointees (Linn, Dyk, Gajarsa, JJ are all Clinton appointees; Michel, CJ, and Mayer, J, are Reagan appointees). At least three of the four other judges voted to deny a rehearing. Of those four, three are Republican appointees (Newman, Lourie, Prost, JJ, are all Republican appointees; Bryson, J, is a Clinton appointee). As you can see here, eight of the twelve active Federal Circuit judges are Republican appointees.
  • En Banc Denial
  • Original CAFC Opinion: Casitas Mun. Water Dist. v. United States, 543 F.3d 1276 (Fed. Cir. 2008).
  • Original CFC Opinion