Tag: property rights

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.

Who Will Replace Justice Souter?

You could call it the end of an error.  David Souter, the “stealth justice” who George H. W. Bush nominated mainly to avoid a confirmation battle and who so disappointed conservatives, is finally free to leave a city he never took to and return to his native New Hampshire. 

Little more can be said about Justice Souter. He has always been inscrutable, at first leaning right, shifting toward the middle in the landmark 1992 cases of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (abortion) and Lee v. Weisman (prayer at high school graduation), and ending up at the left end of the Court alongside Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer – all the while employing an unpredictable jurisprudential method.  And he has always been reclusive, refusing reporters’ and scholars’ interview requests and being the biggest opponent of video cameras inside the Court.  Perhaps most memorably, Souter gained notoriety after his vote in Kelo v. New London (allowing the taking of a private home for the benefit of a developer) spurred property rights activists to petition for the use of eminent domain to turn his farm into the “Lost Liberty Hotel.”

Speculation now turns to possible replacements, and what President Obama will do with his first chance to fill a seat on the high court.  Will he risk a big political battle on this issue so early in his term, or will he appoint someone more confirmable but less pleasing to his base? 

He is under great pressure to appoint a woman, and the three leading female candidates are new Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Wood.  Kagan would be an almost-certain pick a year from now, but having been just confirmed to be the so-called Tenth Justice, she might be seen as too green for elevation.  Sotomayor — because she is Hispanic and despite a mixed judicial record — was the odds-on favorite until the Court took up the employment discrimination case of Ricci v. DeStefano (argued just last week), an appeal of a bizarre opinion Sotomayor joined that denied the claims of firefighters who had been passed over for promotion because of their race.  That leaves Wood, a renowned authority on antitrust, international trade, and federal civil procedure, whose age (58) suggests that this is likely the last vacancy for which she will be considered.  Wood offers a seriousness of purpose and no ideological ax to grind, and is thus the best nominee supporters of constitutionalism and the rule of law can hope for at this time.  (Full disclosure: I took two classes from Judge Wood in law school.)

Adam Smith Goes to Somalia: “Competition Keeps Prices Low”

Many people would agree that modern-day Somalia represents a Hobbesian state of nature. But could anarchy strengthen Somalia’s private sector? This article is certainly very old, but I came across it yesterday and thought the argument would be of interest to political theorists and classical liberals:

…local businesspeople find it easier to do business in a country where there is no government. “There is no need to obtain licences and, in contrast with many other parts of Africa, there is no state-run monopoly that prevents new competitors setting up. Keeping price low is helped by the absence of any need to pay taxes.”

Of course, the absence of a stable and legitimate political and judicial system, compounded by unyielding internecine violence, means individual and private property rights can never be fully protected and we aren’t likely to see foreign businesses flocking to this chaotic country in the foreseeable future. Generally speaking, the proper role of government is to protect individual rights. But the proper role of our government – abroad – should be limited to instances when our national sovereignty or territorial integrity is at risk.  As exemplified in Somalia, America’s attempts to stabilize failed states or pacify foreign populations usually fail, exacerbate already disastrous situations, and are, in principle, gratuitous abuses of American power [See: the calamitous U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia].