A Good Day for Property Rights

Property owners enjoyed a qualified win in the Supreme Court this morning when a unanimous Court (Justice Kagan recused) decided that “government-induced flooding temporary in duration gains no automatic exemption from Takings Clause inspection.” The case, Arkansas Game & Fish Commission v. United States, was brought by AGFC, which owns and operates 23,000 acres of land as a wildlife refuge and recreational preserve. Clearwater Dam, a federal flood control project, lies 115 miles upstream. Water is released from the dam in quantities governed by a pre-approved “management plan” that considers agricultural, recreational, and other effects downstream.

Between 1993 and 2000, the federal government released more water than authorized under the plan. AGFC repeatedly objected that these excess releases flooded the preserve during its growing season, which significantly damaged and eventually decimated tree populations. In 2001, the government acknowledged the havoc its flooding had wreaked on AGFC’s land and ceased plan deviations. By then, however, the preserve and its trees were severely damaged, requiring costly reclamation measures, so AGFC sued the government, claiming damages under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. Today, the Supreme Court agreed, reversing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Earlier, Cato had joined the Pacific Legal Foundation on an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take the case, which it did. We then joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Atlantic Legal Foundation with a second amicus brief urging the Court to uphold the Fifth Amendment rights of property owners whose land is destroyed by the federal government.

As is so often the case with the Court’s property rights jurisprudence, however, today’s decision was not an unqualified win for property owners. Because there is “no magic formula” for determining whether a particular government action constitutes a taking of property, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the Court, “the Court has recognized few invariable rules in this area.” It has drawn some bright lines: regulations that constitute a permanent physical occupation of property or that require an owner to sacrifice all economically beneficial uses of his property will be ruled a taking. But in other cases, the Court will weigh several “factors.” Here, for example, in deciding whether the temporary flooding was a taking and hence compensable under the Takings Clause, the Court weighed the duration of the flooding, the degree to which the flooding was an intended or foreseeable result of the government’s action, the character of the land at issue, the severity of the interference, and—drawing from its infamously opaque Penn Central opinion—the owner’s “reasonable investment-backed expectations.”

Thus, the case is not over yet. Because the government had challenged several of the trial court’s fact-findings, including those relating to causation, forseeability, substantiality, and the amount of damages, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings. Still, the basic principle was settled: temporary government-induced flooding enjoys no automatic exemption from Takings Clause inspection. And that’s a win.