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Laughlin Waters, Fed. Court Judge Who Blocked LB Airport Lower Flight Limits & Imposed Minimum 40 Allowed Air Carrier Flights/Day, Then OK'd Current 41 + 25 Noise Budgeted Airport Ordinance, Dies

Much of Waters' LB Airport reasoning later disapproved by Appeals Court

(June 7, 2002) -- Federal District Court Judge Laughlin Waters has died. In the 1980s, Judge Waters repeatedly struck down LB's Airport flight limits, ordering the number of allowed flights be increased from a then-Council permitted 15 to 18, then to 26, and eventually imposing a minimum of 40 commercial air carrier flights per day.

In 1992, much of Judge Waters' airport reasoning was disapproved by the U.S. 9th district Court of Appeals. We provide excerpts of Appeals Court opinion in Alaska Airlines et al. v. City of Long Beach, below.

The Appeals Court indicated it would have upheld a Council enacted ordinance containing a 32 flight limit if City Hall's ordinance had not included an explicit "nonseverability clause." The nonseverability clause said if one part of the ordinance was invalid, the entire ordinance would be invalid.

Because Judge Waters and the Appeals Court both found a procedural part of the ordinance defective, the Appeals Court said it had no choice but to invalidate the entire ordinance, upholding Waters' ruling on that basis. As a result, Judge Waters' order raising LB's minimum number of daily flights to 40 remanded in force.

In November, 1994, City Hall issued a press release, including supportive quotes from newly elected Mayor Beverly O'Neill, indicating it was undertaking a process of settling the airport litigation. In 1995, the City Council approved a settlement that included a new Airport ordinance -- which corrected the procedural flaw and is LB's current Airport noise ordinance -- which uses a noise budget to allow 41 large commercial + 25 regional daily flights. Judge Waters approved this.

Judge Waters, the District Court's senior judge, died June 3 in Los Angeles. He was 87. He served in the CA Assembly from 1946-1953, was appointed U.S. Attorney (based in L.A.) by President Eisenhower in 1953, remaining in that position until President Kennedy took office in 1961. In 1965, Waters, a former Republican state chairman, announced he would challenge Democrat Gov. Pat Brown, then pulled out of the race in favor of former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, believing Christopher could defeat conservative Ronald Reagan in the primary. Reagan won the primary, defeated incumbent Pat Brown and become Governor. In 1976, President Ford nominated Waters to serve on the L.A. based Federal District court.

We post excerpts of the Court of Appeal's 1992 opinion in Alaska Airlines v. City of Long Beach below, which addresses much of Judge Waters' reasoning in the LB case.

Preemption [This issue was raised by air carriers, not Judge Waters.]

Under the supremacy clause [U.S. Const. art VI, cl. 2], federal law preempts state law when Congress expressly or impliedly indicates an intention to displace state law, or when state law actually conflicts with federal law. [citation omitted]...In 1973, the Supreme Court held that the pervasive scope of federal regulations of the airways implied a congressional intention to preempt municipal aircraft noise restrictions based upon the police power...The Court left the door open to noise regulations imposed by municipalities acting as airport proprietors, however, based on such municipalities' legitimate interest in avoiding liability for excessive noise generated by the airports they own. [citations omitted]...Congress expressly provided that the proprietary powers and rights of municipal airport owners are not preempted by federal law. [citation omitted]. We [the 9th circuit Court of Appeal] recognized that municipally owned airports qualify for a proprietor exemption from preemption [citation omitted]...

Furthermore, we have held that the rationale for the exemption extends beyond purely financial concerns. "The [proprietor] should be allowed to define the threshold of its liability, and to enact noise ordinances under the municipal-proprietor exemption if it has a rational belief that the ordinance will reduce the possibility of liability or enhance the quality of the City's human environment." [citation of 9th circuit appeals court case omitted]...The city's authority to control airport noise is not preempted by federal law. [citation omitted].

Commerce Clause Analysis

The district court [Judge Waters]...expressly stated that it sought "to balance competing interests" and that accommodation must be made by both sides." It therefore weighed the "valid concerns of the Long Beach community" against "the demand for vibrant, safe, fair and efficient national transportation system" and concluded that the ordinance burdened interstate commerce. We find that this close balancing process was inappropriate.

For a facially neutral statute to violate the commerce clause [of the U.S. constitution], the burdens of the statute must so outweigh the putative benefits as to make the statute unreasonable or irrational...[lengthy discussion of cases]

The ordinance here at issue has neither of the problems that have caused the Supreme Court to strike down regulations as creating impermissible burdens on interstate commerce. The state purpose of the ordinance is not illusory...and does not favor in-state industry over out-of-state industry...The goal of reducing airport noise to control liability and improve the aesthetics of the environment is a legitimate and permissible one. [citation omitted] The ordinance applies equally to interstate and intrastate flights, and to air carriers base in California as well as those form outside of that state. The ordinance thus regulates evenhandedly to further this legitimate interest...

Whether Specific Sections Were Unreasonable or Arbitrary

...Section 16.45.70(c) [of the former LB Airport noise ordinance struck down by Judge Waters] limits the number of daily air carrier flights to 32. As the district court found, the total noise produced by 32 flights could vary significantly depending upon what sorts of planes were used. Thus, the district court concluded that the choice of the number 32 was arbitrary. What the ordinance seeks to accomplish, however, is not simply the limitation of noise for its own sake; rather, it seeks to limit the annoyance that residents experience as a result of the airport's operation. It is not unreasonable to believe that the number of times the disturbance occurs could be as relevant as the cumulative noise created by the total number of such disturbances.

...[W]e cannot hold that any of the substantive provisions of the ordinance are completely arbitrary or unreasonable. Virtually any effort to impose specific limitations on flights and noise levels could be subject to similar attacks and create endless litigation. We find that each of the challenged provisions is sufficient supported by a reasonable and legitimate justification. Therefore, the ordinance does not violate the commerce clause.

Equal Protection

The district court held that the ordinance violated the equal protection rights of the air carriers, finding that it imposes "the entire burden of noise reduction on [the carriers] while, effectively, leaving other users of the airport unregulated." There is no dispute that the right to avoid reduction in the number of allocated flights is not a fundamental one, and the air carriers are not a suspect classification; therefore, we cannot find that the ordinance violates the princip0les of equal protection unless it is not rationally related to a legitimate interest of the City. [citation omitted] As we have already noted, the singling out of air carriers for numerical restrictions is rational given the fact that because air carriers alone have regular, published schedules, it is only upon them that such limitations could have predictable effect. The ordinance thus does not violate the carriers' equal protection rights.

Procedural Due Process

The district court's final basis for invalidating the ordinance, and the one on which we uphold the district court's order, is that the ordinance denies the air carriers procedural due process.

Specifically, the [now former] ordinance authorizes the airport manager, alone and without a hearing, to require carriers to reduce flights...It further provides that the determination of the airport manager "shall be conclusive unless it is demonstrated to lack a rational basis." The ordinance provides no procedures for notifying carriers of a contemplated change to allow them to challenge the determination of the airport manager.

We agree with the air carriers that they have a property interest in the number of flights that they have been allocated. Because of the advertisement and public announcement of flights, maintenance of these allocations is crucial to the continued functioning of their enterprise. A license such as these allocations, which is not the subject of an absolute entitlement but which nevertheless becomes "essential in pursuit of a livelihood," is "not to be taken away without that procedural due process required by the fourteenth amendment." [citation omitted]...


The district court [Judge Waters] erred in finding that the ordinance was preempted by federal law, impermissibly burdened interstate commerce, violated equal protection principles, and was arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise not rationally related to legitimate government concerns. The district was correct, however, in its determination that the provision authorizing reduction in flights without adequate notice and opportunity to be heard impermissibly denies procedural protections in conjunction with the deprivation of an important interest. Because of the ordinance's nonseverability clause, this procedural flaw is fatal...

[This following portion from Court's introduction, but pertinent here]...The ordinance contains a nonseverability clause expressly providing that if one provision of the ordinance is held to be unlawful, the entire ordinance will be without force and effect. Thus, if we agree with any of the district court's grounds for its injunction, we must affirm...

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