Every June there is anxious anticipation of the flurry of decisions that define the end of the U.S. Supreme Court’s annual term.  While the Court’s pronouncements often warrant the attention they receive, with all eyes on the nation’s highest court we sometimes overlook important decisions rendered in places like Des Moines, the home of the Iowa Supreme Court.

The case before the Iowa court pitted property owners in Muscatine, Iowa, against Grain Processing Corporation (GPC).  GPC employs a wet milling process to transform corn kernels into products for commercial and industrial use.  The process emits airborne pollutants that fall onto neighboring properties.  Laurie Freeman and seven of her neighbors, all living within ½ mile of the GPC facility, sued in the Iowa courts claiming that the offending pollution resulted from GPC’s negligence and that the releases constituted both nuisance and trespass.

The state trial court granted summary judgment to GPC on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ common law claims are preempted by the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) and by an Iowa environmental statute, and that the questions raised in the case are political and therefore not appropriate for the courts.

In late June, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the lower court ruling on all three grounds, and thereby struck blows for property rights, federalism and the historic rights-enforcing role of the judiciary.  While the CAA and Iowa Code 455B “protect the general public,” said the court, the common law of private nuisance and trespass “focuses on special harms to property owners.”  In our federal system, it is the responsibility of state courts to remedy those harms.

In claiming that the plaintiffs raised issues not appropriate for judicial resolution, GPC sought cover from the U.S. Supreme Court’s semi-comatose political question doctrine.  That doctrine, relied on by the Supreme Court only three times in the last half century, excuses federal courts from considering issues constitutionally committed to another branch of government or that might disrupt the comity necessary to the separation of powers.  But, noted the Iowa court, enforcing the common law of tort is what state courts have always done.  Quoting from a U.S. 2nd Circuit opinion, the Iowa court underscored the obvious: “The fact that the issues before us arise in a politically charged context does not convert what is essentially an ordinary tort suit into a non-justiciable political question.”

That the plaintiffs sought only to enforce their property rights in “an ordinary tort suit” led the Iowa Supreme Court to reject the lower court’s ruling that the plaintiffs’ common law claims were impliedly preempted due to the complex and comprehensive nature of the CAA. “It has long been understood,” said the unanimous court, “that an activity may be entirely lawful and yet constitute a nuisance because of its impairment of the use and enjoyment of specific property.”  Private nuisance actions, noted the court “have a different purpose than the regulatory regime established by the CAA.”  That purpose, said the court, “is to protect the use and enjoyment of specific property, not to achieve a general regulatory purpose.”

It is beyond argument that the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution confirms that Congress, when acting pursuant its enumerated powers, has authority to preempt state law.  But it cannot do so in a manner that violates the constitutional rights of the people.  In urging the Iowa Supreme Court to reverse the lower court finding of preemption, plaintiffs and amicus argued that the court should presume that neither Congress nor the Iowa legislature would have intended to take, in violation of the 5th amendment, the plaintiffs’ rights to the use and enjoyment of their properties free of nuisance and trespass.  The court agreed that Iowa law “should be interpreted in a fashion to avoid the constitutional problem.”  There is every reason to interpret federal law with the same presumption.

In this age of regulatory zeal it is widely presumed that property rights must yield to the greater good as determined by legislators and regulators.  To be sure, both Congress and state legislatures have broad authority to legislate for the public welfare, but not by means that infringe upon the individual rights protected by our constitutions.  In recognizing that government power to promote the general welfare does not override government responsibility to enforce property rights, the Iowa Supreme Court has reminded us of the essential role of state courts in protecting property rights — which in this case could also mean cleaner air for the people of Iowa.


(Mr. Huffman was the principal author of an amicus brief filed with the Iowa Supreme Court.)