Recently, an eight-justice U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a case involving Mississippi gopher frogs, which are believed to be in danger of extinction and are limited to a small handful of habitats. To address this issue, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 1,500 acres in Louisiana as a critical habitat to protect the gopher frogs, which currently live about 50 miles away. The frogs have not been seen in the Louisiana habitat in half a century. It contains low-lying areas that temporarily fill with water during the season in which the gopher frogs lay their eggs. Fish cannot live in the ponds because the water eventually dries up. Thus, the frogs can lay their eggs there without the risk of fish eating the eggs.
The timber company Weyerhaeuser leases the property from its current owners and plans to develop it. It argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had exceeded its authority in designating the area as a critical habitat. Part of Weyerhaeuser’s position hinged on its interpretation of what a critical habitat means. It urged the Court to find that a critical habitat designation should be limited to areas where a species can now live, rather than areas that serve as a potential fallback plan should the species be unable to survive in its current habitat. Weyerhaeuser’s attorney also claimed that the government’s action will diminish the value of the land by over $30 million, causing a significant loss to the property owners and hampering them in any effort to sell the property. At this stage, the government has not offered compensation to the property owners for alterations to the property.
The liberal justices, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appeared to be convinced by the government’s position, while the conservative justices, such as Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, appeared to lean toward the perspective of the private entities challenging the designation. The lower court ruled in favor of the government, so a 4-4 split on the eight-justice Court would allow that ruling to stand without creating a precedent for future decisions. However, the Court could also decide to rehear the case when Justice Brett Kavanaugh joins it so that it can reach a more decisive outcome.
You can listen to the oral arguments in this case at Oyez.
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