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Water fight between Mississippi and Tennessee kicks off in-person Supreme Court session

Published: Oct. 4, 2021 at 4:04 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - The Supreme Court opened its fall session Monday, with justices back in the courtroom for the first time since the pandemic began. The first oral arguments on Monday came in the case Mississippi v. Tennessee, a fight over interstate groundwater.

Only eight of the nine justices heard the case in-person Monday, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh tuning in from afar after testing positive for COVID-19 last week.

Mississippi v. Tennessee boils down to a groundwater dispute between the neighboring states. In 2014 Mississippi filed a complaint saying a City of Memphis pumping operation took 252 billion gallons of groundwater from Mississippi, which Mississippi claims violated its sovereignty.

“One thing that I heard from many of the justices was really an appreciation of the importance of how we treat water in the law,” said Noah Hall, a water law expert from Wayne State University and one of the attorneys involved in the case.

The groundwater in question was part of an aquifer that spans a number of states in the region. The Mississippi legal team argued Tennessee is impacting the groundwater in its territory, and in return Mississippi wants hundreds of millions of dollars in relief. The justices pushed back, saying that Tennessee did not physically cross the border to take water from what is an interstate water source.

“The court was very clearly leaning towards dismissing or in someway not allowing Mississippi’s novel case of state ownership of water to proceed any longer,” said Hall.

Throughout Monday’s proceedings the justices asked both legal teams about Mississippi simply changing its case to what is considered the usual remedy, equitable apportionment, essentially changing the amount of water used rather than seeking monetary relief.

Hall says if Mississippi wins this case, there would be widespread ramifications, including states claiming they own interstate groundwater and selling it for financial gain.

“There would be nothing to prevent or restrict states from selling the water within their territories to close state budgets,” said Hall.

The justices are expected to take their time to form their opinions. A final ruling is expected to come next spring.

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