WASHINGTON — South Carolina won a battle Wednesday in its water war with North Carolina when the U.S. Supreme Court barred the city of Charlotte from joining the legal challenge.
A divided high court said in its 5-4 ruling that the North Carolina government can adequately defend Charlotte residents in the lawsuit filed by S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster over diversion of water from the Catawba River as it flows from North Carolina to South Carolina.
"Charlotte has not carried its burden of showing a sufficient interest for intervention in this action," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.
It was an interim ruling in the rare case of one state suing another. Called "original jurisdiction" cases, such lawsuits go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court without consideration before lower courts.
Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer joined Alito in an unusual combination of conservative and liberal justices.
McMaster, who is running for governor, hailed the ruling.
"The city of Charlotte is the largest water consumer along the Catawba River basin in North Carolina," McMaster said. "Today's decision by the Supreme Court is positive progress in South Carolina's fight to protect the future of our water supply, economic prosperity and quality of life."
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said the interim decision doesn't necessarily portend ultimate victory for McMaster in the legal challenge he launched in 2007.
"There's no reason to pop the corks in South Carolina," Tobias said.
The 440-mile-long Catawba follows a southeastern route from its Blue Ridge Mountains headwaters in North Carolina to the Lake Wylie reservoir on the two states' border.
Once in South Carolina, the Catawba becomes the Wateree River and then emerges from Lake Marion as the Santee River before emptying into the Atlantic south of Georgetown.
While blocking Charlotte's participation, the high court allowed Duke Energy and the Catawba River Water Supply Project to intervene in the case. Both had argued that neither state could properly represent their interests.
Under an agreement between the two states, South Carolina should receive about 711 million gallons of water a day from the Catawba, but natural conditions and other factors have depressed the river's flow below that level.
In another unusual ideological array, Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the majority opinion Wednesday, along with Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The four dissenting justices wrote that all three entities — not just the city of Charlotte — should be denied the right to join the lawsuit.
The high court ruling effectively gives Duke Energy and the Catawba water agency seats at the table in legal arguments. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a final decision in the case by the end of its current session in June.
The majority justices held that Duke Energy has standing to intervene in the case because it has unique and compelling interests. The power company operates 11 dams and reservoirs in the two states.
The high court ruled that the Catawba River Supply Project, which runs a South Carolina plant that supplies water to Lancaster County, S.C., and Union County, N.C., should also be permitted to intervene because neither state can adequately defend its interests.