WildEarth Guardians v. Baier
On January 7, 2014, the Arizona Supreme Court let stand a Court of Appeals decision affirming the State Land Commissioner's decision to award a grazing lease to the existing lessor without first determining who was the highest bidder--the lessor or WildEarth Guardians. The Center had challenged the State Land Department's unlawful favoritism in awarding a state land grazing lease to the rancher instead of WildEarth Guardians. The Land Department's decision utterly fails to maximize the state's revenue at a time when that revenue is needed more than ever.
This case involved acres of breathtakingly beautiful state land near Springerville in Northeastern Arizona. The State Land Department is supposed to award grazing leases on this and other state land based on the "highest and best bid" it receives. Maximizing earnings on grazing leases is important because revenues from these leases directly fund Arizona's public education.
When the grazing lease for this piece of land came up for renewal, however, the Land Department refused to even look at the sealed bids it solicited and instead, awarded the lease to the current tenant, a rancher, who adamantly refuses to pay a single penny above the minimum lease price.
The Center, in conjunction with its client in this case, WildEarth Guardians, challenged the Land Department's actions, which are contrary to the public interest.
WildEarth Guardians is a non-profit organization that protects and restores wildlife, wild rivers, and wild places in the American West. It is also experienced in leasing and managing state lands. WildEarth Guardians submitted an application for the grazing lease at issue in this case. The State Land Commissioner at the time, Mark Winkelman, determined that neither the existing lessee (the rancher) nor WildEarth Guardians had a clear advantage over the other, and therefore requested sealed bids from both applicants. The rancher appealed this decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings.
At the 3-day hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge, the rancher argued that he had an advantage over WildEarth Guardians in that he resided on the property while WildEarth Guardians would have a caretaker visit the property about once a week. He argued that awarding the lease to a resident lessee would provide the state with an economic benefit, although it is largely unclear what exactly that benefit would be.
The Center countered that the Land Department must consider sealed bids before it can determine which applicant would provide the greater economic benefit.
The Administrative Law Judge agreed with the rancher and the State Land Department subsequently awarded the lease to the rancher without ever opening the sealed bids.
The Center, on behalf of WildEarth Guardians, appealed this decision to the Superior Court. After a protracted legal battle stemming from the Land Department's failure to provide the Center with adequate notice of its decision - a battle the the Center won in the Arizona Court of Appeals - on remand the Superior Court upheld the Commissioner's decision and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Thus,even though the undisputed facts established that the Commissioner had no idea which bidder was the highest bidder when he awarded the lease, the Court of Appeals concluded that the process was constitutional. The Center sought review of the disappointing decision by the Arizona Supreme Court. However, on January 7, 2014, that Court declined our request.