On February 17, 2015 the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a rule adopted by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) limiting size and quantity of fish that could be harvested from Mille Lacs Lake during the upcoming fishing season. Save Mille Lacs Sportsfishing, Inc. v. Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, 2015 (Minn. Ct. App. 2015) (reviewing 38 Minn. Reg. 1379 (Apr. 21, 2014) (to be codified at Minn. R. 6264.0400, subp. 4).

1915 Postcard of Spirit Island, Mille Lacs Lake. (Source Minnesota Historical Society)

1915 Postcard of Spirit Island, Mille Lacs Lake. (Source Minnesota Historical Society). The DNR has taken steps in recent years to help restore the lake’s legendary walleye fishery. See here for more information.

Petitioners, residents and a resort near the lake, brought a pre-enforcement declaratory judgment challenge to the rule on the grounds that (a) DNR’s administrative record did not reference or discuss the relevance of article XIII, section 12, of the Minnesota Constitution (the “Preservation Provision,” which states that “Hunting and fishing and the taking of game and fish are a valued part of our heritage that shall be forever preserved for the people and shall be managed by law and regulation for the public good”) or the public-trust doctrine (a common-law principle providing that the state, in its sovereign capacity, holds absolute title to all navigable waters and the soil under them for the common use); and (b) the rule exceeded DNR’s authority under Minn. Stat. § 14.69.

The Court rejected both arguments. First, the Court held there is no requirement that an agency such as DNR must discuss or even reference the agency’s underlying constitutional or common-law authority to adopt a rule; citing the agency’s statutory authority—which DNR did—is sufficient.  Second, the Court held that Minn. Stat. § 14.69, which sets forth the scope of judicial review of agency contested case decisions, was inapplicable to petitioners’ pre-enforcement declaratory judgment proceeding. Judge Hudson wrote a concurring opinion, concluding that petitioners had not shown sufficient injury to establish standing and that the court could have decided the case without reaching the merits.