Q&A with Alumnus Colton Lauer
Colton Lauer, Texas A&M School of Law ‘18 is a Water Master for the Montana Water Court, located in Bozeman. The Water Court is a specialty court under the direct supervision of the Montana Supreme Court engaged in the adjudication of all existing water rights claims in the state of Montana. In 1973, the State required all persons owning or claiming a water right in Montana to file Statements of Claim establishing a prima facie case for the existence of their water right by 1982. An existing, or historical, water right is a water right with a priority date senior to July 1, 1973.
The Court has a Chief Water Judge and an Associate Water Judge as well as several Water Masters and various Court staff. Water Masters, acting similarly to magistrate judges, consolidate cases, manage cases, approve settlement agreements, hold trials, and issue Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law regarding water rights claims after reviewing evidence in the record. As part of the adjudication process, the Court issues decrees in river basins throughout the state to provide notice to water users of the way in which water rights filed in a basin are claimed. The Water Court hears objections to water right claims appearing in each decree, and also resolves issues flagged by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The goal of the adjudication is to issue “final decrees” in each basin in Montana.
What drew you to this particular field of law? Why did you choose to apply to be a Water Master?
I became interested in water law and policy due in part to my time growing up in Arizona, where water is a very scarce resource. Witnessing how water law, policy, and scarcity affect farmers, ranchers, municipalities, and everyday life drove me to research and explore the field. During my time at Texas A&M, this interest in water law was fostered and encouraged by professors like Gabriel Eckstein and Vanessa Casado Pérez. I applied for a position as a Water Master at the Water Court because the position offered an opportunity to be directly and deeply involved exclusively in water rights adjudication.
What does an average day at work look like for you?
An average day includes case consolidation and management, evaluating evidence, making decisions, and issuing orders. Whether the Water Master is requesting more evidence, managing a case, or making Findings and Conclusions, plenty of time is used to review and analyze evidence, draft and issue orders, and organize how a basin will be adjudicated.
The case consolidation is the process whereby a Water Master reviews water rights claims, and issues with those claims, and consolidates them into Water Court Cases. An initial consolidation order effectively “kicks off” a case. When consolidating a case, a Water Master might set a filing deadline, settlement deadline, or bring the parties together in a status conference. Case management may involve holding status conferences to determine how the case should proceed, managing a hearing track, or reviewing and ruling on requests such as motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, or motions for extensions of time. When evidence is filed with or heard by the Court, a Water Master reviews and analyzes that evidence to determine if an issue is resolved, if more evidence is needed to support a stipulation, or if the evidence establishes certain facts. At the end of a case, whether concluded by trial or settlement, a Water Master drafts and issues Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in a Master’s Report, which recommends to the Court that certain changes be made to a water right claim.
With the COVID-19 outbreak it has been a very creative process. Even though we, as a court, are a little technologically behind, I still have a lot to do. I have to go into the courthouse to get all the paperwork for each file, as anything recent is going to be on a claim file. This means after I get the files, I can then do just about everything at home via remote access to the office. We’re doing pretty well and operate as best as we can, given the circumstances. Everything is now done via email and it’s actually streamlined the court process and made it a little faster because fewer things have to be printed and passed off.
What are the biggest issues that the Court face on a day-to-day basis?
One issue that comes to mind is public participation. While many people do participate in cases, there are some who do not. Public participation is vital to determining how to accurately describe water rights in Montana so that they can be enforced and protected in the future. For example, there are times when I request additional information to resolve an issue on a claim and receive no response. That can only make it difficult to determine the facts if the issue is complicated, and can also affect the accuracy of that claimant’s water right regardless of the issue’s complexity. For that reason, it is important that claimants review their claims and the claims of their neighbors, update the state records if they change addresses or sell their property, and participate in the adjudication process.
Were there any classes or experiences you had at Texas A&M that helped prepare you for your current job?
The writing classes I took in law school taught me how to draft legal documents, and the water law courses and experiential courses gave me exposure and knowledge into the world of water law and prepared me for the “real world.” Classes of note include several of water law courses taught by Professor Eckstein and the Natural Resources Capstone course co-taught by Professor Eckstein and Adjunct Professor Howard Slobodin (with the Trinity River Authority). I learned so much and am grateful for the knowledge and passion those professors imparted on me and am thankful for the opportunities offered by Texas A&M School of Law.
Describe some interesting aspect of your job:
One of the most fascinating things about being a Water Master in Montana is learning about the history of the state. Adjudicating historical water rights, some of which may be hundreds of years old, makes a Water Master a bit of a history detective. During the course of adjudicating a basin, I get to review historical evidence and learn about the history of the basin in which I am adjudicating water right claims. Sometimes I even see evidence dating back to the “old west,” such as journals, maps, or other documents from the 1880s (typically copies, but interesting nonetheless). This aspect of my job means there is always something new to learn with each case, and I love seeing and learning more and more about the history and people of the Treasure State.
What advice can you offer to law students? What can law students do to prepare for work in a job like yours?
Take advantage of opportunities, travel when you can, never give up, and take “the leap.” It is important to take part in programs, classes, or conferences in your area of interest to learn more and expand your interest. I was able to attend the 16th World Water Congress in Cancun, Mexico, during the summer between 2L and 3L year as I was a member of the organizing committee/ambassador for Texas A&M. I also took a field study trip to Central Mexico with Professor Eckstein to learn about water rights in farming communities. You may also meet people who could help you along the way. Travelling, especially through Texas A&M, is something that broadened my perspective and helped me grow as a person and a professional, and I would highly recommend going on those trips when you are able to do so.
It is also very important to never give up. It sounds cliche, but even though you may get discouraged with your studies and in your job searches, if you keep at it, you will surprise yourself with what you can achieve. Finally, I encourage all students to “go out and leap.” I suppose this is my way of saying “just do it.” Participate in the mock trial tournament. Apply for that job. Accept that job offer in another city. Talk to that professor or attorney who might help you. You never know where you may wind up!