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We Build Alaska

Judge rules Campbell Lake residents cannot sue State of Alaska in federal court over public access

There’s been an interesting update on the ongoing saga on public access to Campbell Lake: a federal court has ruled that the U.S. Constitution bars Campbell Lake residents who have public use easements on their properties from suing the state in federal court to invalidate those easements.

But first a quick recap. Last spring, the Alaska Landmine wrote about a newly filed case by the two homeowners who have public easements encumbering their properties on the shoreline of Campbell Lake.  Anchorage landowners Gordon Franke and John Frost sued John Boyle, the Commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources, in federal court.

Franke and Frost claimed that the State’s assertion that RS 2477 section-line easements ran across their properties violated federal law because it was unlawful for the state to simply pass a statute saying that easements exist along every section line. They also claimed that the state’s assertion of RS 2477 easements over their property constituted an uncompensated government taking, was an unreasonable seizure of their property, and violated their due-process rights.

On January 22, 2024, Chief U.S. District Judge for the District of Alaska Sharon Gleason dismissed Franke and Frost’s case. This brief update summarizes Chief Judge Gleason’s decision and looks to what is coming next in this saga.

Judge Gleason’s order can be viewed in its entirety here. After Franke and Frost sued the state in federal court, the state filed a motion to dismiss. The state said that the 11th Amendment barred Franke and Frost’s suit against the State. Judge Gleason agreed. The 11th Amendment reads in its entirety:

The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

Simply put, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, the 11th Amendment prohibits individuals from suing states in federal court whether the individual is from that state or from another. There are exceptions to this rule that are not discussed in this piece.

In 1997, a fractured U.S. Supreme Court applied the 11th Amendment to bar an Indian Tribe from suing the State of Idaho to determine ownership of the lands underlying Coer d’Alene Lake. The Court essentially reasoned that the 11th Amendment prevented the states from being summoned into federal court by private actors seeking to divest the state of property interests. Judge Gleason applied this precedent and cases from the Ninth Circuit and ruled that the state was immune in federal court from be sued by Franke and Frost over their property interests in the easements. The case was dismissed.

What happens next? Franke and Frost could appeal the dismissal to the Ninth Circuit. If that is done, nothing changes and the easements remain in place during the appeal. The Ninth Circuit would then be tasked with determining whether Judge Gleason properly applied the 11th Amendment to dismiss Gordon and Franke’s case. The appeal would not resolve the merits of the case but only whether Gordon and Franke could bring their case in federal court at all.

Another possibility is that Franke and Frost do not appeal and reserve their arguments for the state court case. Readers will recall that in October 2023, the State filed a lawsuit in state court asking for rulings that the easements across Franke and Frost’s properties were valid. That case will continue regardless of whether Franke and Frost appeal the federal case.

The Alaska Landmine will update this matter as it evolves.

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