By a 5-3 margin (Justice Bland not participating), the Texas Supreme Court has held that Texas Central Railway, a private entity seeking to construct a high-speed electric railroad connecting Dallas and Houston meets the statutory definition in Chapter 131, Transportation Code, for an in interurban electric railway company and thus have the power of eminent domain. The decision in James Fredrick Miles v. Texas Central Railroad & Infrastructure, Inc. and Integrated Texas Logistics, Inc. (No. 20-0393) ends nearly seven years of litigation, which commenced when a landowner, James Miles, sued Texas Central to block a survey of his property, which lies along the railway’s preferred route. Miles won at the Leon County district court but lost in the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals. SCOTX initially declined review but reconsidered when Texas Central reached an agreement with the federal government to connect the rail line to the Amtrak system.
The majority opinion by Justice Lehrmann, joined by Chief Justice Hecht and Justices Boyd, Busby, and Young, presents a classic exposition of statutory construction. At the center of the dispute is the meaning of §131.012, Transportation Code, a 1907 statute (re-enacted in 2009), which grants eminent domain authority to a “corporation chartered for the purpose of constructing, acquiring, maintaining, or operating lines of electric railway between municipalities in the state for the transportation of passengers.” Under the plain meaning of the statute, the majority held, there is no question that Texas Central’s project is just that, despite the fact that, as Justice Huddle’s dissent (joined by Justices Blacklock and Devine) points out, the original statute was meant to promote lines for single-car trolleys between cities. While the majority recognized its precedent holding that a statute should be interpreted in the context of its original adoption, taking that principle too far would mean not only the Court rewriting the statute, but that broadly drafted statutes like §131.012 would have to be readopted every time technology changed (in the event, §131.012 was recodified in 2009, so it has in effect been updated).
The majority did not reach the issue of whether Texas Central is a railroad company under Chapter 112, Transportation Code, although in a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Hecht would have held that it is. The ruling is a big win for Texas Central, but it is likely to reignite efforts by opponents of the project to get the Legislature involved.