Overton Park v. Volpe
In 1971, Secretary of Transportation Volpe had approved Federal funds for the construction of a six-lane highway through a public park in Memphis, Tennessee. The project would destroy 26 acres of park land and sever the zoo from the rest of the park. Opponents to the highway contended that the Secretary was in violation of Section 4(f) and Section 138 because he did not provide a formal finding to support the “no prudent and feasible alternative” or “minimize harm” clauses. The lower courts ruled that, according to the legislation, the Secretary was not required to provide any formal findings. The Supreme Court overturned the lower courts’ rulings.
Whether the Secretary of Transportation violated Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966.
The Court made several holdings; one, though he is not required by the legislation to provide formal findings, the Secretary’s actions are still subject to judicial review pursuant to 701 of the Administrative Procedure Act. Two, de novo review would not be necessary, however the court must “conduct a substantial inquiry and determine whether the Secretary acted within the scope of his authority, whether his decision was within the small range of available choices, and whether he could have reasonably believed that there were no feasible alternatives.” Three, formal findings by the Secretary are not required by Section 4(f). Four, the case would be remanded to the District Court for plenary review, whereby the court may require the Secretary to make formal findings.
The holdings have several implications that have set the precedent for Department of Transportation actions concerning 4(f). First, though no formal findings are required by law, because agency actions may be subject to judicial review, having substantial evidence to support agency decisions is critically important. Second, according to Section 706 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the reviewing court may hold unlawful agency actions found to be, not only “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law” but also, unconstitutional, in excess of authority, without observance to authority, unsupported by evidence, or unwarranted by the facts. Ultimately, however, APA review by the courts must defer to the agencies expertise and fact-finding. Because of this, the Department of Transportation has developed a strict standard and procedure for documentation to support their 4(f) findings.
In the majority opinion from the Overton Park case, Justice Marshall stated, “This language is a plain and explicit bar to the use of federal funds for construction of highways through parks - only the most unusual situations are exempted.” The Secretary had argued that 4(f) “requires the Secretary to engage in a wide range balancing of competing interests.” The court rejected this assertion. Justice Marshall writes in the opinion that the meaning of “prudent” in 4(f) would seem to lead to the weighing of “the detriment resulting from the destruction of parkland against the cost of other routes, safety considerations, and other factors, and determine on the basis of the importance that he attaches to these other factors whether, on balance, alternative feasible routes would be prudent.” Justice Marshall finds, however, that public park land would always be used if this were the case, as it would always be cheaper, safer and less disruptive to use park land.
So Justice Marshall concludes that Congress intended to put the protection of publicly owned park land (and, we can assume, countryside, recreation lands, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and historic sites as well) as “paramount” policy goals when considering the construction of federally funded roads. The use of these protected resources can only be justified when there are “unique problems or unusual factors involved in the use of alternatives or that the cost, environmental impacts, or community disruption resulting from such alternatives reach extraordinary magnitudes.”