Tag: property rights

Beach v. Florida

Cato Adjunct Scholar and Pacific Legal Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Tim Sandefur published an excellent op-ed in the National Law Journal this week on the upcoming Supreme Court case Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection:

The case involves a Florida statute determining the boundaries of oceanfront property. Under a 1961 law, the state drew a brand-new line separating public and private land on certain beaches, meaning that some land that would have been privately owned would belong instead to the state. A group of property owners filed suit, arguing that the law deprived them of property without just compensation, violating the state and federal constitutions.

Last December, Florida’s highest court rejected their arguments. It held that, while the new boundary gave the state ownership of the beach land, the former owners actually had no such right to begin with. Despite more than a century of Florida law to the contrary, the court announced that the owners actually only had a right to “access” the ocean, and because the state promised to allow them to keep crossing the land to reach the water, it actually hadn’t taken anything away when it seized the land itself.

Thus, by simply reinterpreting state property law, the court allowed the state to take property without compensation with a mere stroke of a pen. Yet the U.S. Constitution forbids states from confiscating property - even through legal legerdemain - without payment.

[.]

[T]he U.S. Constitution also guarantees every American’s right to due process of law and to protection of private property. If state judges can arbitrarily rewrite a state’s property laws, those guarantees would be meaningless. More than four decades ago, Justice Potter Stewart warned that, without a constitutional limit on the states’ power to determine the nature of property, states could “defeat the constitutional prohibition against taking property without due process of law by the simple device of asserting retroactively that the property it has taken never existed at all.”

It is well-worth a full read here.

Despite the dreadful decision in the Kelo case several years ago, the fight to maintain the fundamental right to private property continues in our courts and legislatures. Tim and PLF have been doing yeoman’s work in the fight for property rights, and I am proud to team Cato up with them and the NFIB Legal Center in filing an amicus brief on behalf of the rightful property owners in this case. You can download the PDF of the brief here.

Sotomayor Displays a Lack of Deep Thinking

It strikes me that Sotomayor has been fairly forthright in her responses to questioning, not hiding too much behind the tired cliché that she can’t answer a question because it could lead to prejudging a case—certainly far less than Ruth Bader Ginsburg and even John Roberts.  Still, on several important issues, such as property rights, national security law, abortion, and even her overall judicial philosophy, she has appeared disingenuous in saying that she has no firm views on the subject—hiding behind precedent again and again as if first principles didn’t exist.  In other words, she says a lot—displaying a broad knowledge of cases and legal doctrine—without answering larger questions.  She answers questions about what the law should be with what the law is, questions about what the Constitution says with what the Supreme Court has said about the Constitution.

This would be barely appropriate for a nominee to a lower court, who is, of course, bound by precedent.  But senators rightly want to know a Supreme Court nominee’s preferred legal theories, what her view of the Constitution is unencumbered by others’ attempts to interpret that document.

The more Sotomayor speaks, the more it becomes clear that these types of nonanswers, this inability to see (or lack of desire to express) a big picture view, is her own essence.  It continues a pattern that is evident from her judicial opinions, which are mostly unremarkable and, in the neutral sense of that term, unimpressive.  For all her career success and a personal story we should all celebrate, she is an average judge who apparently gives little thought to the broad swath of law and where her rulings fit into that.

That is, Sonia Sotomayor is not a Cass Sunstein or Larry Tribe or Elana Kagan or (fellow circuit judge) Diane Wood.  She is not a scholar or an ideologue.  Her liberality is reflexive and warmed-over, a product of the post-modern educational environment that formed her in the 1970s—complete with ethnic activism—but not an intellectual edifice.  This does not mean she isn’t a danger to liberty and the rule of law, or that her votes and opinions won’t harm the Constitution.  But it does indicate that, for all her bluster about being a “wise Latina,” she is little more than a left-leaning empty robe.

CP Townhall

The Sotomayor Hearings

judgesotomayorNothing has changed in the six short weeks since Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court: she remains a symbol of the racial politics she embraces. While we celebrate her story and professional achievements, we must realize that she – an average federal judge with a passel of unimpressive decisions – would not even be part of the conversation if she weren’t a Hispanic woman.

As Americans increasingly call for the abolition of affirmative action, Sotomayor supports racial preferences. As poll after poll shows that Americans demand that judges apply the law as written, the “wise Latina” denies that this is ever an objective exercise and urges judges to view cases through ethnic and gender lenses.

At next week’s hearings, Sotomayor will have to answer substantively for these and other controversial views – and for outrageous rulings on employment discrimination, property rights, and the Second Amendment. To earn confirmation, she must satisfy the American people that, despite her speeches and writings, she plans to be a judge, not a post-modern ethnic activist. After all, a jurisprudence of empathy is the antithesis of the rule of law.

Good News: No Eminent Domain for Flight 93 Memorial

Whether the federal government should be building a $58 million memorial to the heroic passengers on United flight 93, who thwarted the plot to crash a fourth plane on September 11, is a question that has yet to be asked in Washington.  But it clearly is improper for the authorities to acquire land for the memorial through eminent domain.

Thankfully, Washington has backed down from its plans to seize the property. 

Reports Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Yesterday, the U.S. government announced that it wouldn’t resort to eminent domain to seize land in Somerset, Pa for the proposed Flight 93 memorial. This is good news for fans of the concept of private property. When the National Park Service announced that it would seize the land from the seven property owners for the memorial rather than pay the landowners what they were asking for the lots, you didn’t have to be a libertarian to know something unjust was happening. The National Park Service was engaging in behavior that was fundamentally un-American, anti-democratic and an affront to the concept of property rights. Sure, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the government’s right to do such a thing in the name of the public good, but it was questionable whether a memorial to a plane load of heroes that crashed in a field on 9-11 outweighs the rights of the current owners to use the land as they see fit. Fortunately, the government has declined to grab the final 500 acres it needs for its $58 million, 2,200 acre 9-11 memorial and national park.

The United 93 passengers embody the best of America.  Commemorating their heroism should be done in a manner that best reflects the values they were defending.

Richard Epstein on Sotomayor

Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago and New York University, finds much to worry about in Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court:

The treatment of the compensation packages of key AIG executives (which eventually led to the indecorous resignation of Edward Liddy), and the massive insinuation of the executive branch into the (current) Chrysler and (looming) General Motors bankruptcies are sure to generate many a spirited struggle over two issues that are likely to define our future Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. The level of property rights protection against government intervention on the one hand, and the permissible scope of unilateral action by the president in a system that is (or at least should be) characterized by a system of separation of powers and checks and balances on the other.

Here is one straw in the wind that does not bode well for a Sotomayor appointment. Justice Stevens of the current court came in for a fair share of criticism (all justified in my view) for his expansive reading in Kelo v. City of New London (2005) of the “public use language.” Of course, the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment is as complex as it is short: “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” But he was surely done one better in the Summary Order in Didden v. Village of Port Chester issued by the Second Circuit in 2006. Judge Sotomayor was on the panel that issued the unsigned opinion–one that makes Justice Stevens look like a paradigmatic defender of strong property rights.

I have written about Didden in Forbes. The case involved about as naked an abuse of government power as could be imagined. Bart Didden came up with an idea to build a pharmacy on land he owned in a redevelopment district in Port Chester over which the town of Port Chester had given Greg Wasser control. Wasser told Didden that he would approve the project only if Didden paid him $800,000 or gave him a partnership interest. The “or else” was that the land would be promptly condemned by the village, and Wasser would put up a pharmacy himself. Just that came to pass. But the Second Circuit panel on which Sotomayor sat did not raise an eyebrow. Its entire analysis reads as follows: “We agree with the district court that [Wasser’s] voluntary attempt to resolve appellants’ demands was neither an unconstitutional exaction in the form of extortion nor an equal protection violation.”

Maybe I am missing something, but American business should shudder in its boots if Judge Sotomayor takes this attitude to the Supreme Court. 

9/11 Memorial? Good. Eminent Domain Abuse? Bad.

The power of eminent domain, embodied in the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, is so great that it nearly invites abuse, even when the government uses its power for constitutional, and even honorable, reasons.

Case in point: The U.S. Park Service has designed a memorial for Flight 93, the one that crashed in rural Pennsylvania on 9/11.  The plans have been in the works for some time, with the government and representatives of Flight 93’s victims working with the property owners—even explicitly assuring them in 2002 that eminent domain would not be used.

As time passed, however, and the self-imposed deadline to have a memorial in place for the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy grows nearer, the government has become impatient and now plans to condemn the land of the seven owners (representing about 500 of the planned 2,200 acre memorial and national park) who have not yet worked out a deal with the Park Service.

While there are two sides to every story, it seems that the property owners have been flexible and open to negotiation—a far cry from the extorting hold-outs against whom eminent domain is supposed to be invoked:

“It’s absolutely a surprise. I’m shocked by it. I’m disappointed by it,” said Tim Lambert, who owns nearly 164 acres that his grandfather bought in the 1930s. The park service plans to condemn two parcels totaling about five acres — land, he said, he had always intended to donate for the memorial.

“To the best of my knowledge and my lawyer, absolutely no negotiations have taken place with the park service where we’ve sat down and discussed this,” Lambert said.
Lambert said he had mainly dealt with the Families of Flight 93 and said he’s provided the group all the information it’s asked for, including an appraisal.

Even if some takings of property are warranted—a 9/11 memorial certainly fits the “public use” requirement—look at the abuse of power we have here.  Setting aside the question of why Lambert’s five acres are so crucial to a 2,200-acre project (and whether the memorial needs to be that large in the first place), why the strong-arm tactics?

Instead of letting an otherwise legitimate contract negotiation—the very foundation of our private property system—run its course, the government is resorting to robbing people because they had the misfortune to own the land near the place a historic tragedy occurred. This type of abuse is why eminent domain must be used sparingly, and why courts must be vigilant in enforcing the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property rights.

H/T: Nicki Kurokawa.

More Property Rights Shenanigans on the West Coast

Cato recently filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review a Ninth Circuit decision that tramples on property rights.  (See also this oped I co-authored with co-counsel.)

Well, tomorrow the Ninth Circuit hears another case involving property rights violations, and this time the plaintiffs, in exchange for a building permit, were forced to give up their right to vote. Arguing for the beleaguered property-owners will be none other than Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur.  You can read more about the case in Tim’s own blogpost on PLF’s site.

Here’s the basic principle with these cases: just as the government can’t take your property (for public use) without just compensation, it can’t attach arbitrary regulations and fees.  After all, if you own an acre of land and the government tells you you can’t do anything on it – be it run around or drain puddles or build – it might as well have “taken” it by eminent domain.  And if it says you can do these things only if you give up some other entitlement you have – not necessarily money, but, say, the right to put up signs criticizing the local government – it has imposed an unconstitutional condition on your enjoyment of your property.