Landmark Public Trust Case a Major Win for Hoosiers
In a Valentine’s Day offering to the people of Indiana, on Wednesday the Indiana Supreme Court handed down its decision in the landmark public trust case of Gunderson v. State. The Conservation Law Center, with attorney Jeff Hyman leading the litigation, represented environmental groups Alliance for the Great Lakes and Save the Dunes in a bid to protect the public’s right to use the Lake Michigan shore as public land. The CLC and its hard-working clinic interns worked on this case for over four years. After partial victories in the trial court and intermediate appellate court, CLC’s clients were fully vindicated by the state’s highest court. In a unanimous decision (with Justice Slaughter recusing himself), the Court held that the boundary separating public trust land from privately-owned riparian land along the shores of Lake Michigan is the “natural” ordinary high water mark and that, absent an authorized legislative conveyance, the State retains exclusive title up to that boundary. The Court left it to the Indiana legislature to flesh out most public trust uses of the shore but confirmed that walking on the beach joins other traditional public trust uses. This court's opinion overall may be the most solid statement of the core public trust and equal footing doctrines yet by a Great Lakes state. The decision will be an enduring foundation for future advocacy of public trust rights.