Well it turned into a busy week for ag law right at the last minute and after I posted the weekly round up. Major actions from the Texas and New Mexico Supreme Courts that have major impacts on the agriculture industry in both states.
First up, the Texas Supreme Court will NOT hear the appeal in Texas Farm Bureau v. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. This case arose during the drought of 2012 when there was a shortage of water on the Brazos River. Dow Chemical had a 1942 water right and sought a priority call requesting the TCEQ to cut off water rights to all junior water users, meaning users whose permits were issued after 1942. The TCEQ issued the priority call and cut off water rights to over 700 junior water users, most of whom were farmers. The order, however, made an exception for power generators and municipalities, allowing those junior users to continue pumping. Several farmers got together with the Texas Farm Bureau and filed suit against TCEQ, arguing that this violated the prior appropriation doctrine. The farmers basically argued that while they understood junior water rights could be curtailed in a time of drought, that rule applied to all junior users, and TCEQ could not pick certain users and allow them to keep pumping. The TCEQ argued that they had the right to make these exceptions which were necessary for the public welfare. Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the farmers. The TCEQ had appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, and just today, that appeal was denied. This means that the opinion from the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals will stand. Click here to read my prior blog post discussing this case and the Court of Appeals opinion in more detail.
Second, the New Mexico Supreme Court has issued a stay in a Court of Appeals ruling that found the agricultural worker exception to the Workers Compensation Act was unconstitutional. As you may recall from this prior blog post, the Court of Appeals made this ruling in Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy. When two agricultural workers—a chile farm hand and a dairy laborer and herdsman–were injured on the job, they sought workers compensation benefits, which were denied because New Mexico law excludes agricultural laborers from workers compensation coverage. They filed suit claiming the exception violates the Equal Protection Clause. The New Mexico Court of Appeals agreed with the workers and deemed the exclusion to be unconstitutional. Perhaps most concerning for agricultural producers in the state was the finding that the ruling would not only apply going forward (meaning that the exclusion would not apply to new workers compensation claims), but would also apply retroactively to all claims that were pending as of March 30, 2012. On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court issued a stay on this opinion. Specifically, the Order states that “the precedential value of the Court of Appeals’ opinion in Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy is hereby suspended until further order of this Court.” The Order also states that the case will be set for the next oral argument calendar. So for now, the bottom line is that further notice, the agricultural workers exclusion is still in effect in New Mexico.