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Jackson Municipal Airport Authority v. Bryant

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

July 25, 2017




         In 2016, the State of Mississippi passed a law to transfer control of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport from local elected officials to regional and statewide elected officials. See Miss. Code Ann. § 61-3-6. The City of Jackson and several of its citizens intervened in this suit as plaintiffs to challenge the law's constitutionality.

         Now before the Court is Governor Phil Bryant and Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves' motion for judgment on the pleadings. They seek to dismiss Counts I-IV of the plaintiffs' eight-count complaint. The motion is fully briefed and ready for adjudication.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         In 1960, the City of Jackson created the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA) to operate the airport on City-owned land. The City retains ultimate control over the airport because the Mayor nominates, and the City Council confirms, JMAA's board members.

         The relationship between the City, JMAA, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is roughly sketched out in the complaint and the briefing. Two facts are relevant today. First, JMAA holds an “Airport Operating Certificate” issued by the FAA. Second, JMAA and the City are “co-sponsors” on federal grants which support the airport. See Docket No. 146 (Statement of Interest of the FAA). The City says its contractual obligations under these grants are memorialized in “Sponsor Assurances.”

         The statute at issue in this case, § 61-3-6, announces the State's plan to replace JMAA with a new airport authority. The new authority's board members will be appointed by elected officials of the City of Jackson, Rankin County, and Madison County, along with the Governor and Lieutenant Governor. The effect is to seize control of the airport from the City of Jackson.

         No transfer of power has occurred. In part that is by design: the statute explicitly requires the new airport authority to seek and receive an Airport Operating Certificate from the FAA before it takes over. The FAA, in turn, requires litigation over the airport's governance to be resolved before it will consider an application to transfer an Airport Operating Certificate. The result is that JMAA continues to operate the airport while this lawsuit is pending.

         The Governor and Lieutenant Governor seek dismissal of Counts I-IV of the complaint. In Count I, the plaintiffs claim that § 61-3-6 is preempted by federal law. Count II claims that the statute violates the “paramount allegiance” clause of the Mississippi Constitution. Count III consolidates several due process arguments. And Count IV contends that the statute violates the contract clauses of the Mississippi and United States Constitutions.[1]

         II. Legal Standard

         Motions for judgment on the pleadings are governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c).

The standard for deciding a Rule 12(c) motion is the same as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. The court accepts all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. The plaintiff must plead enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).

Guidry v. Am. Pub. Life Ins. Co., 512 F.3d 177, 180 (5th Cir. 2007) (quotation marks and citations omitted). “[A] defendant should ordinarily raise preemption in a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings or a Rule 56 motion for summary judgment.” Fisher v. Halliburton, 667 F.3d 602, 609 (5th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted).

         III. Discussion

         A. Preemption

         In Count I, the plaintiffs claim that § 61-3-6 conflicts with the federal government's comprehensive control of aviation, and therefore violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. They specifically contend that the statute “contravenes federal law by improperly transferring the Sponsor's Assurances to the new authority . . . . This transfer would force the City to breach the obligations imposed upon the City by its Sponsor's Assurances, which obligations are imposed by the force of federal law.” Docket No. 42, at 29.

         1. Substantive Law

         “The federal government, when acting within the confines of its constitutional authority, is empowered to preempt state law to the extent necessary to achieve a federal purpose.” City of Morgan City v. S. La. Elec. Co-op. ...

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