Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe

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Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued January 11, 1971
Decided March 2, 1971
Full case nameCitizens to Preserve Overton Park, et al. v. Volpe, Secretary of Transportation, et al.
Citations401 U.S. 402 (more)
91 S. Ct. 814; 28 L. Ed. 2d 136; 1971 U.S. LEXIS 96
Case history
PriorSummary judgment for defendant, injunction denied, 309 F. Supp. 1189 (W.D. Tenn. 1970); aff'd, 432 F.2d 1307 (6th Cir. 1970); cert. granted, 400 U.S. 939 (1970).
SubsequentOn remand to 335 F. Supp. 873 (W.D. Tenn. 1972)
The Secretary of Transportation can only approve use of federal funds for construction of a highway in a public park if no (a) feasible and prudent alternative exists, and (b) after undertaking all possible planning to minimize harm.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · William O. Douglas
John M. Harlan II · William J. Brennan Jr.
Potter Stewart · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Case opinions
MajorityMarshall, joined by Burger, Harlan, Stewart, White, Blackmun
DissentBlack, joined by Brennan
Douglas took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
Administrative Procedure Act; Department of Transportation Act § 4(f), codified at 49 U.S.C. § 1653(f); Federal-Aid Highway Act § 138, codified at 23 U.S.C. § 138

Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402 (1971), is a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that established the basic legal framework for judicial review of the actions of administrative agencies. It also stands as a notable example of the power of litigation by grassroots citizen movements to block government action.[1][2]


The case concerned the decision by the Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe to construct Interstate 40 through Overton Park in Memphis, Tennessee.

During the Interstate Highway System building boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, public parks were viewed as desirable construction sites because construction did not need to invoke the power of eminent domain. That changed after passage of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, which required the government to demonstrate that there were no "feasible and prudent" alternatives to building through public lands.[3]

Procedural history[edit]

After Secretary Volpe approved the Tennessee Department of Highways proposal to construct the highway through Overton Park, a group called Citizens to Preserve Overton Park brought suit against him in the Western District of Tennessee for violation of § 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act. The Secretary responded by filing a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the District Court. On appeal, the 6th Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment.


A sign provides Memphis visitors the history of the landmark decision.

On March 3, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court and held that that summary judgment was improperly granted. While the Secretary was not required to make formal findings, the Secretary's sole reliance on litigation affidavits was insufficient in light of the "feasible and prudent" clause of § 4(f). The Secretary's decision did not fall into the Administrative Procedure Act's exception for action "committed to agency discretion."[4]

Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the Court, held § 4(f) "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 Court rejected the Secretary's proposed understanding of "prudent" as a grant of discretion to weigh costs and benefits to determine whether alternatives exist.[5]

Because the costs of building through parks were demonstrably low, as construction before 1966 had shown, the Court held that the 1966 enactment of the "feasible and prudent" clause "indicates that protection of parkland was to be given paramount importance."[6]

The Court remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings.[7]

In any case, the Overton Park alignment of I-40 was cancelled, forcing its rerouting to the northern half of the city's loop highway, which had been designated as I-240, and the already-completed section east of the park became an unnumbered expressway named Sam Cooper Boulevard. Only the southern half of the loop is still signed as I-240.

Black concurrence in judgment[edit]

Justice Black, joined by Justice Brennan, concurred in vacating the summary judgment. However, they would have remanded the case to the Secretary of Transportation rather than the District Court.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402 (1971),).
  2. ^ "The Hidden Gem of West Tennessee (Found in Memphis' Overton Park)". Retrieved 31 May 2014.
  3. ^ Department of Transportation Act of 1966 § 4(f)
  4. ^ Overton Park, 401 U.S. at 410-11.
  5. ^ Overton Park, 401 U.S. at 411.
  6. ^ Overton Park, 401 U.S. at 412-13.
  7. ^ Overton Park, 401 U.S. at 406.
  8. ^ Overton Park, 401 U.S. at 421-22. "I dissent from the Court's failure to send the case back to the Secretary, whose duty has not yet been performed."

External links[edit]