Tag: Supreme Court

The Supreme Court Takes up Old-Timey Property Rights

In the 19th Century, when railroads were being built across the West, the federal government granted significant land and benefits to railroad companies. The Great Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 empowered the government to grant railroad companies right-of-way easements to build tracks across others’ land to facilitate the expansion of the nation’s railways – that is, railroads were granted a right to use sections of another’s property for railroad purposes without owning title to the land underneath. In 1976, the government sold the Brandt family a parcel of land in Wyoming which was crossed by one of these railroad easements.

In 2001, the railroad that owned the easement formally abandoned all claims to it.  Typically, when this happens, the easement is simply extinguished and the owner of the land may then use the former easement however he or she wishes. But the federal government had different plans for the thin strip running through the Brandts’ land. In 2006, the government sued for title to the land lying under the former easement on the theory that it had retained a “reversionary interest” in the land when granting the railroad the right of way easement, even though it never actually set aside any interests when granting the easement.  The government thus claimed that after the railroad abandoned the easement (after only ever owning an easement and never full title to the land), full title to the land “reverted” back to the federal government. The Brandts argue that under the basic principles of the common law of property, the government had no such right, and that even if any legislative act allowed the government to somehow acquire their land, such an act would require payment of just compensation under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

Although this may seem like a small, unique problem, the scope of the Old West’s railway system was huge and those old easements criss-cross the land of thousands of property owners. In 1983, Congress amended the National Trails System Act to allow the government to take abandoned railroad easements and turn them into land for public recreation and “railroad banking.” Landowners have been fighting the taking of their property under the Trails Act ever since, claiming, as here, that the government’s original grant to the railroads contained no residual right of possession for the government.

After the trial court rejected the government’s radical claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit split with the Seventh and Federal Circuit courts (and ignored some of its own precedent on the way) and held that the government did indeed have a reversionary interest in the land, even though it never actually carved itself an exception, as the law requires. The Brandts, faced with the uncompensated government confiscation of a strip of land cutting their property in two, have now brought their case to the Supreme Court in an attempt to keep the government’s hands off their land and off the land of thousands of other landowners in their same position.

After supporting the Brandts’ request for Supreme Court review, Cato, along with four other groups and several property law professors – including Richard Epstein – has now filed a brief supporting the Brandts’ fight against the government’s poorly justified land-grab. We argue that the Tenth Circuit’s decision threatens to unsettle longstanding presumptions of property law because it willfully ignores basic differences between easements and “fee estates” in land and other basic principles of property law like the “strip and gore” doctrine (which holds, for example, that land under a right-of-way is split down the center and owned by those who own the land on either side of the easement).

This case is important, because there are many thousands of miles of old railroad rights-of-way crossing the countryside that would be potentially subject to uncompensated government confiscation if the Court were to follow the Tenth Circuit’s approach.  In addition, some 3,000 to 4,000 miles of old railroad easements are abandoned every year. It’s not entirely surprising that the government would go full throttle on such a shoddy legal argument for the chance to be able to snatch this land back without having to pay for it. The surprising thing is that the Tenth Circuit green-lighted it. We urge the Supreme Court to switch tracks.

The Court will hear argument in Brandt v. United States on January 14.

Cato legal associate Julio Colombo co-authored this blogpost.

Supreme Court Should End Advertiser’s Kafkaesque Nightmare

Douglas Walburg faces potential liability of $16-48 million. What heinous acts caused such astronomical damages? A violation of 47 C.F.R. § 16.1200(a)(3)(iv), an FCC regulation that enables lawsuits against senders of unsolicited faxes.

Walburg, however, never sent any unsolicited faxes; he was sued under the regulation by a class of plaintiffs for failing to include opt-out language in faxes sent to those who expressly authorized Walburg to send them the faxes. 

The district court ruled for Walburg, holding that the regulation should be narrowly interpreted so as to require opt-out notices only for unsolicited faxes. But on appeal, the Federal Communications Commission, not previously party to the case, filed an amicus brief explaining that its regulation applies to previously authorized faxes too. Walburg argued that the FCC lacked statutory authority to regulate authorized advertisements. In response, the FCC filed another brief, arguing that the Hobbs Act prevents federal courts from considering challenges to the validity of FCC regulations when raised as a defense in a private lawsuit. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recognized that Walburg’s argument may have merit, it declined to hear it and ruled that the Hobbs Act indeed prevents judicial review of administrative regulations except on appeal from prior agency review. 

In this case, however, Walburg couldn’t have raised his challenge in an administrative setting because the regulation at issue outsources enforcement to private parties in civil suits! Moreover, having not been charged until the period for agency review lapsed, he has no plausible way to defend himself from the ruinous liability he will be subject to if not permitted to challenge the regulation’s validity. Rather than face those odds, Walburg has petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case, arguing that the Eighth Circuit was wrong to deny him the right to judicial review without having to initiate a separate (and impossible) administrative review. 

Cato agrees, and has joined the National Federation of Independent Business on an amicus brief supporting Walburg’s petition. We argue that the Supreme Court should hear the case because the Eighth Circuit’s ruling permits administrative agencies to insulate themselves from judicial review while denying those harmed by their regulations the basic due-process right to meaningfully defend themselves. The Court should hear the case because it offers the opportunity to resolve lower-court disputes about when the right to judicial review arises and whether a defendant can be forced to bear the burden of establishing a court’s jurisdiction.

These are important due-process implications raised in this case, and the Court would do well to adopt a rule consistent with the Eleventh Circuit’s holding on this issue—one that protects the right to immediately and meaningfully defend oneself from unlawful regulations. Otherwise, more and more Americans will end up finding themselves at the bad end of obscene regulatory penalties by unaccountable government agencies, with no real means to defend themselves.

The Court will decide whether to take Walburg v. Nack early in the new year.

No Constitutional Authority for Federal Hate Crime Law

Identified by William Blackstone as a universal maxim of the common law, the protection against double jeopardy—being tried twice for the same crime—has been a part of American law since even before it was enshrined in the Constitution.  While the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause (“nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb”) prohibits successive prosecutions for the same offense, courts have recognized a “dual sovereignty” exception, which permits the federal government to prosecute a federal crime after completion of a state prosecution over the same conduct. Originally a small exception intended to enable Prohibition-related prosecutions, the dual sovereignty exception has widened vastly to accommodate the glut of federal crimes established since that time. 

But there are limits on such prosecutions: the federal government must have legitimate jurisdiction over the crime being prosecuted. In Hatch v. United States, William Hatch is challenging the use of the federal Hate Crime Prevention Act to federally re-prosecute him for an attack on a disabled Navajo man for which he was already convicted under New Mexico state law.

Congress passed the HCPA pursuant to Section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment, which authorizes Congress to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment ban on slavery, which authority the Supreme Court has extended to eliminating the “badges and incidents” of slavery. The lower federal courts upheld the HCPA’s constitutionality, deferring to Congress’s power to “rationally determine” what the badges and incidents of slavery are. In petitioning the Supreme Court for review, Hatch argues that the HCPA intrudes on the states’ police power to prosecute local crimes and that Congress cannot be the judge of its own powers. In City of Boerne v. Flores  (1997), for example, the Supreme Court noted that Congress may not pass “general legislation upon the rights of the citizen.”

Joined by the Reason Foundation and the Individual Rights Foundation, Cato has filed a brief supporting Hatch’s petition. We argue that the use of hate-crime laws to sweep intra-state criminal activity into federal court has nothing to do with stamping out slavery and that the Court should decide the legitimacy of these laws before a more highly publicized and politicized case comes along and makes that task even harder. Not only are federal hate-crime laws constitutionally unsound, but, as George Zimmerman’s recent trial highlighted, they invite people dissatisfied with a state-court outcome to demand that the government re-try unpopular defendants. The administration of justice and the protections of the Double Jeopardy Clause shouldn’t be subject to the whims of public pressure and racial politics.

Supporting Individual Rights, Opposing Eminent Domain Abuse

A recent blogpost published by Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center (with whom we sometimes work with on op-eds and briefscriticized Cato’s involvement in Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action as cowardly, and inconsistent with our ideals. While Cato has great respect for any organization that, like the CAC, works “to preserve the rights and freedoms of all Americans,” their criticism of our brief is baseless, and grossly mischaracterizes Cato’s position in the case and track record generally. 

While I’m wary of misrepresenting the post through over-simplification, it can be boiled down to the following: 

  1. Mount Holly is a case about eminent domain;
  2. Pro-property rights groups (including Cato) have a history of “howling” against eminent domain;
  3. Those groups’ failure to argue against eminent domain in this case (and their support of the Township of Mount Holly), is inconsistent with their previous stance on property rights, and evinces a lack of moral courage;
  4. That failure can be explained because this case is also about civil rights and equality, and conservative groups hate equality, and live to help the state further oppress the downtrodden masses. 

 CAC’s criticism stems from an incorrect framing of the case at hand:

an important case out of Mount Holly, New Jersey, that involves Fair Housing Act (FHA) claims in the context of an effort by Mount Holly Township to use eminent domain to redevelop its only predominately minority community—and in the process, displace and raze the homes of its residents.

While that description is accurate in that the case is important, originates in Mount Holly, and concerns the applicability of the Fair Housing Act to a redevelopment plan, the case before the Supreme Court has nothing to do with eminent domain. The question to be argued before high court couldn’t be plainer: “Whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act.”

It’s surprising that CAC would make such a basic mistake about the case, given that they filed a brief in the case, supporting the Mount Holly residents (a brief which makes no mention of eminent domain – at all).

“Eminent domain” refers to a specific way that the government can acquire private property against the will of the owner. So far, Mount Holly Township hasn’t resorted to eminent domain. Of the 329 properties that the township wants to include in the redevelopment plan, it has been able to acquire all but 70 of them through voluntary sales. If those remaining 70 owners – some of whom are parties to the case – were to challenge any attempts to expropriate their homes, Cato would be first in line to file a brief in their support, probably joined by those “howling”  pro-property groups like the Institute for Justice and Pacific Legal Foundation. (Sadly, it’s unlikely that we would garner CAC’s support, because the group has “long supported the reasonable use of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes.”)

No, this case isn’t about eminent domain because the residents aren’t challenging the township’s acquisition of property, but what it intends to do with that property. In a nutshell, the plaintiffs argue that the Fair Housing Act – which forbids governments and private individuals from refusing “to sell or rent … or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin” – bars not just intentional discrimination like restrictive covenants, but also any action that, even if entirely neutral and colorblind,  has a “disproportionate impact” on the ability of members of a protected class to buy or rent a home. They argue not that Mount Holly is intentionally discriminating against minority residents, but that the increase in property values as a result of redevelopment would effectively price the poor out of the neighborhood – and that counts as discrimination because the poorer residents are disproportionately drawn from minority groups

Cato opposes that theory of law generally, for the same reason that we oppose governmental abuse of eminent domain: we stand firmly against attempts by the government to control how people may dispose of their property. A homeowner should be able to sell his house for whatever price he thinks fair – without worrying that if his asking price is too high, he’ll be accused of racism and forced to defend himself in court. Our position in Mount Holly is the product of the reasoned and consistent application of well-articulated liberal principles, not “cowardice.”

As a closing note, we take issue with the implication that Cato “detests civil rights statutes.” Cato supports laws that protect individual freedom and opposes those that don’t. We may disagree with CAC on whether a law falls in the first or second category, regardless of whether it’s a “civil rights” statute or otherwise, but make no mistake that we support individual civil (and other) rights.

Indeed, we believe that the first and foremost duty of civil rights legislation (and constitutions) is to protect citizens from undue state interference with their daily lives and liberties. A reading of the FHA that embraces disparate impact claims doesn’t protect individuals from the state but instead represents an expansion of state interference. Behavior that was once lawful – selling your home for whatever price you wish – would become sanctionable. Disparate impact theory holds private individuals responsible not for personal bigotry, or the direct consequences of their actions, but for economic realities beyond their control – and that makes no one freer, nor more equal.

Update: Repeating what happened in the previous disparate-impact FHA case, Magner v. Gallagher, this case has apparently settled. The only question now is what the administration did to keep this issue away from the Supreme Court again. 

Further update: A couple of readers familiar with the facts on the ground in Mount Holly point out that while it’s technically correct that Mount Holly “hasn’t resorted to eminent domain,” the town’s redevelopment plan is indeed all-too-typical of eminent-domain abusers. That is, while not employing eminent domain – no condemnation proceedings have (yet) been filed – the town threatened to use it and then claimed “voluntary” sales when the homeowners capitulated. The redevelopment authority has represented that the incentives it offered for relocation were greater than what homeowners would’ve gotten from the eminent domain process – that alas is probably true, because the compensation paid for government takings is rarely “just” – but of course they would’ve had to sweeten the deal even more if they couldn’t threaten eminent domain in the first place. In other words, as we and our pro-property-rights allies have long argued, the ultimate solution is to reverse Kelo v. New London and take away the government’s ability to forcibly transfer property from one private party to another. If such eminent-domain-abuse claims aren’t foreclosed by the Mount Holly settlement, I suggest that the town’s residents hire IJ to litigate them. Cato would look forward to filing an amicus brief in support.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Gabriel Latner.

Free Speech Week—Tuesday

Today Cato continues its celebration of the freedom of speech on day two of Free Speech Week. Throughout the week we will be celebrating freedom of speech by posting highlights from Cato’s recent work to support freedom of speech in its various forms, whether through legal advocacy, media appearances, or other public outreach.

Today’s highlight focuses on one of Cato’s recent efforts to promote free speech in the context of campaign finance. Campaign finance laws generally attempt to reduce “corruption” in politics (or achieve some other end goal of varying legal validity) by curtailing the First Amendment rights of those who attempt to participate in the electoral process by speaking out or contributing money to candidates or parties. Shawn McCutcheon is one of these people whose First Amendment rights are being curtailed by federal campaign finance laws, but not for any legally valid purpose. In addition to the limits on contributions to any individual candidate or political party per election, federal campaign finance law also places a cap on the overall amount that can be donated to all candidates and parties combined in any two-year period. Mr. McCutcheon has been waging a legal battle to vindicate his First Amendment right to support however many political candidates he pleases, so long as his contributions remain within the various individual limits. The case is now before the Supreme Court (oral arguments were last week) and stands to be one of the bigger First Amendment cases the Court hears this year. 

Cato has supported Mr. McCutcheon’s fight by filing an amicus brief in the case and by spreading awareness of the issue. Our brief asserts the unworkability of the contribution-expenditure distinction that lets the government treat political contributions as less than fully-protected speech. The Supreme Court will announce its decision in the case later in the term.

To read Cato’s amicus brief in McCutcheon v. FEC click here.

For commentary by Cato’s Ilya Shapiro on the legal issue at stake click here, and here.

For more information on Free Speech Week and to learn how you can help celebrate free speech, check out www.FreeSpeechWeek.org.

Even Little Platoons Have First Amendment Rights

Nathan Worley and three friends hold a weekly political discussion group in their hometown of Sarasota, Florida. In 2010, a ballot initiative for a proposed amendment to the Florida constitution prompted the group to pull together $600 and exercise their First Amendment rights. They soon found, however, that doing so wasn’t going to be quite so easy.

Under Florida’s campaign finance law, it’s illegal for two or more people to join together and spend more than $500 supporting or opposing a state ballot issue. Instead, the state forces even small groups like Worley’s to register and speak through a political committee, which is then subject to a vast catalog of vague, inscrutable regulations that are enforced by thousands of dollars in fines. To speak publicly about the ballot issue, Worley’s informal coterie would have to hire a specialized lawyer and accountant and include “disclosures” in their planned radio ads that would take up about 20 percent of the airtime.

Instead of remaining silent like most small groups do when faced with this type of prohibitive regime, the Worley crew joined with the Institute for Justice to challenge Florida’s laws and vindicate their right to free political speech in federal court. Despite the obvious speech-chilling effect of the regulations, however, the lower courts failed to rigorously scrutinize Florida’s laws. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in particular abdicated its judicial role in two ways.

First, instead of applying “strict scrutiny,” the court chose the more deferential “exacting” scrutiny, based on the notion that so-called “disclosure” requirements like Florida’s don’t prevent people from speaking. Second, the court hardly even applied the “exacting” standard — deciding, on its own, to all but ignore the facts of the case by analyzing it as a challenge to the entire campaign-finance regime rather than simply as-applied to small groups like Worley’s.

In light of the Eleventh Circuit’s refusal to meaningfully scrutinize Florida’s speech-restrictive laws, Worley and IJ have petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. Cato and the Center for Competitive Politics have filed a brief supporting that petition because rulings like the lower courts’ here demonstrate a clear need for the Supreme Court to clarify the correct standards to apply when evaluating campaign finance regimes like Florida’s.

Courts shouldn’t be able to get by without judging just because a state calls its speech regulation “disclosure,” or because the courts decide on their own to recharecterize the case as a “facial” challenge. A Supreme Court hearing would put needed pressure on the federal judiciary to actually scrutinize these types of speech regulations and hopefully prevent them from continuing to silence small groups with little funding — because even little platoons of politically interested citizens have First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court will decide later this fall whether to hear Worley v. Florida Secretary of State.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.

Higher Education at the High Court

At 1:00 p.m. this afternoon, in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the Supreme Court will begin hearing oral argument on a simple question: may states ban racial discrimination in their public colleges and universities? Given that the U.S. Constitution, for 145 years, has said that “No state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” one would think that an easy question to answer. But such is our convoluted equal-protection law today that last November the entire Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided, 8-7, that 58 percent of Michigan’s voters violated the Constitution when in 2006 they passed Proposition 2, amending the state’s constitution by prohibiting, among other things, discrimination by race in public higher education.

To understand why Prop. 2 was thought necessary in the first place, given the 14th Amendment’s equal protection guarantee, we have to consider the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger. There the Court held, 5-4, that public universities may take race into consideration in their admissions decisions in order to promote “diversity” – at least as long as they consider race among other factors and don’t do so too explicitly. In that case the University of Michigan’s law school passed the test. In a companion case, Gratz v. Bollinger, the college failed because its discrimination was too blatant. Wanting no part of that social engineering scheme, Michigan’s voters passed Prop. 2.

What, then, was the Sixth Circuit’s reasoning (which generated five dissenting opinions from all seven dissenting judges)? Prop. 2, the majority said, disproportionately burdens minorities by requiring them not simply to appeal to admissions officers for special consideration – as those seeking, say, legacy preferences might – but to overturn a state constitutional amendment. Citing “political structure” precedents, which Cato’s brief before the High Court shows to be irrelevant in this case, the court below held that Prop. 2 “placed special burdens on the ability of minority groups to achieve beneficial legislation.” As my colleague Ilya Shapiro contends below, that argument is not likely to wash with the Supreme Court, not least because California’s Prop. 209, which prohibits racial preferences in that state’s public higher education, has been upheld by several courts, including the notoriously liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.