Tag: takings

Supreme Court to Government: Stop Railroading Property Owners

Today, in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, the Supreme Court rebuked another attempt by the Obama administration to adopt a novel and extreme litigating position that was contrary to well-established precedent. Eight justices agreed with Cato’s amicus brief, holding that the United States does not retain a property interest in former railroad lands that are no longer used by railroads. Although this may seem like an arcane issue for Cato to be involved in, the case actually resembles a typical takings case, but this time the government tried to define a property right out of existence rather than pay compensation to the owners.

To be fair to the Obama administration, this case began in 2006, and both Republican and Democratic administrations have been litigating similar cases for some time. Brandt is a best seen as an example of how governments of all stripes will find the path of least resistance to accomplish its goals, including defining a property right out of existence to avoid paying for it.

Building Housing That Some People Can’t Afford Isn’t Racist

“Disparate impact” theory holds someone liable for discrimination for a race-neutral policy that statistically disadvantages a specific racial group — say, blacks score lower on a firefighter-promotion test than whites — even if that negative “impact” was neither foreseen nor intended. The application of this theory has been fraught with controversy, to say the least, but it comes up again and again, in contexts ranging from employment to education to voting.

While disparate impact claims have sometimes been sustained under the federal Fair Housing Act (which makes it unlawful to deny housing on the basis of race) since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has only recently agreed to decide whether these claims are lawful. Two years ago, the Court was about to hear such a case, Magner v. Gallagher, when the Justice Department, led by now-Labor Secretary Tom Perez, pressured the city of St. Paul, Minnesota to settle it. The same sort of political pressure is now being brought to bear on Mount Holly Township, New Jersey; supporters of disparate impact theory simply don’t think that it can survive legal scrutiny.

The current case involves a redevelopment plan for a blighted Mount Holly neighborhood (“the Gardens”) that would transform the neighborhood into mid-range single-family dwellings. (Thus far, the township has acquired 259 of 329 properties through various financial incentives, without yet resorting to eminent domain.) The Gardens’ residents sued, arguing that the redevelopment plan violated the FHA because a majority of them would not be able to afford the new homes.

The district court dismissed this argument, holding that the redevelopment plan affected Gardens residents equally, without regard to race, and was tied only to economic considerations. The court of appeals reversed that ruling, holding that the residents’ association had set out a case of discrimination under the theory of disparate impact because a majority of the affected residents were non-white.

Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and four other public-interest organizations on an amicus brief arguing not only that disparate impact claims are impermissible under the text of the FHA, but that such claims force unconstitutional actions when applied to governments. Before putting race-neutral policies into effect, government agencies would have to determine whether a particular racial group would be disproportionately impacted and take steps to remedy that difference. By mandating an equality of ends — as opposed to an equality of opportunity — disparate impact liability encourages the adoption of discriminatory quota systems.

The Takings Clause Has No Expiration Date

The Obama Administration has had a bad time recently in property rights cases. In particular, three cases, Arkansas Game & Fish Commision v. United States, Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, and Sackett v. EPA, were big losses for the government and big wins for the private property owners who are increasingly subject to unconstitutional attempts to take land. Last week, Cato, along with the National Federation of Independent Business and the Chapman Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to review a circuit court decision that could have far-reaching implications for property owners everywhere.

The Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause guarantees that private land cannot be taken for public use without “just compensation.” But apparently, according to the Federal Circuit, this right has an expiration date. Specifically, the Federal Circuit ruled that Mike Mehaffy purchased his land too late to claim that the government regulated away most of his property value. Mehaffy should’ve known, said the court, that the Clean Water Act had been passed and degraded the value of the land he had purchased. This is called the “Notice Rule,” and it leaves Mehaffy without a claim, unable to recoup most of his property investment.

While the Supreme Court has never given specific guidance on how a court should balance whether a regulation that takes or lowers the value of property should be compensated, in Palazzolo v. Rhode Island the Court was very specific about one thing: no one factor should decide. Despite this admonition, the Federal and Ninth Circuits focus solely on notice to effectively bar anyone from bringing suit if they bought land too late. Cato’s brief argues that Nollan v. California Coastal Commission implicitly recognized that a challenge can be brought despite the fact that property was obtained after the regulatory act in question. Later, in Palazzolo, the Court unmistakably drove this point home: “[A takings claim] is not barred by the mere fact that title was acquired after the effective date of the state-imposed restriction.” To do so, said the Palazzolo Court, would “put an expiration date on the Takings Clause” and would absolve the state of its duty to defend its actions, no matter how unreasonable.

Despite the Supreme Court’s clear rejection of a test based solely on the Notice Rule, the Federal and Ninth Circuits circumvented the Supreme Court’s holding in Palazzolo and revived the Notice Rule. This is especially far reaching, as so many takings claims are brought in the Court of Federal Claims where the Notice Rule now controls. Moreover, by solely looking at the issue of notice, the Federal Circuit gave federal agencies an incentive to run out the clock, as once all the land has been transferred, no owner can bring a takings suit. The takings problem is compounded by difficulties in determining if land is subject to the Clean Water Act in the first place—a new owner might find himself newly regulated under changing interpretations of the Clean Water Act, and yet be denied remedy by application of the Notice Rule. Most modest landowners won’t have the means to take such a case to the government but also can’t sell the property without extinguishing their claim. This manipulates the property market, with some owners avoiding transactions that might destroy their takings claims, while most will be forced to sell at a significantly depreciated rate. This burden will likely fall most heavily on groups without the time or resources to fight, like the elderly.

The Notice Rule’s resurrection is plainly at odds with the Supreme Court’s precedent, creates a near total ban on those takings claims that are economically viable, and whittles away property rights. Cato urges the Supreme Court to enforce its own precedent, and make it clear that that there is no ban on pursuing “just compensation” simply because they purchased their property a little too late.

Raisin-Taking Claim Now Ripe for Consideration on the Merits

As Ilya noted, the Supreme Court yesterday cleared the procedural roadblocks for the Horne family, which grows and processes raisins in California, to challenge the operations of the USDA’s marketing order system as an unlawful taking of their property without compensation. The Hornes say that under the USDA’s California Raisin Marketing Order, the Raisin Administrative Committee demanded that they hand over 47 percent of their raisins to be disposed of in ways that do not compete with sales in the domestic retail raisin market, such as export programs and school lunches. 

47 percent! Back in January that figure reminded me of an earlier scale of government extraction: 

Max Boot, who has written a new book on the history of guerrilla movements, tells how Shamil, firebrand leader of a celebrated 19th-century Muslim insurgency in Chechnya and Dagestan, began to lose the allegiance of “many ordinary villagers who balked at his demands for annual tax payments amounting to 12 percent of their harvest.” Instead, they switched their allegiance instead to the rival Russian czar, whose demands were more modest.

If only Washington were content with the czar’s less-than-12 percent. For more on regulatory takings, check out this testimony from way back in 1995 by Cato’s own Roger Pilon before the House Judiciary Committee.

Government’s Legal Arguments Shrivel on the Vine

Yet again the unanimous Supreme Court has slapped down a government attempt to deprive property owners of their civil rights.  What was at stake in Horne v. Dept. of Agriculture wasn’t even the property – raisins! – but the mere ability to challenge the government’s desire to take that property without meaningful judicial review.

Nobody should have to suffer a needless, Rube Goldberg-style litigation process to vindicate their constitutional rights. Yet that’s exactly what the U.S. Department of Agriculture sought to impose on raisin farmers Marvin and Laura Horne when they protested the enforcement of a USDA “marketing order” that demanded that the Hornes turn over 47% of their crop without compensation.

These New Deal-era regulations are bad enough – forcing raisin “handlers” to turn over some of their crop to the government so it can control raisin supply and price – but here the government kept throwing up obstacles to the Hornes’ attempts to assert that they shouldn’t legally be subject to them.  The government demanded about $650,000 from the Hornes and didn’t want to give them a day in court until they paid the money and jumped through assorted administrative hoops.

The Supreme Court correctly rejected that absurd position and reversed the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that upheld it, reinforcing the line drawn by five other circuit courts.  “In the case of an administrative enforcement proceeding,” Justice Thomas wrote on all his colleagues’ behalf, “when a party raises a constitutional defense to an assessed fine, it would make little sense to require the party to pay the fine in one proceeding and then turn around and sue for recovery of that same money in another.”

Indeed, there’s no reason to treat Fifth Amendment takings claims any differently than lawsuits against government violations of other constitutional provisions.

Here’s more background on the case and Cato’s amicus brief.

The Constitution Protects Even 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 the railroad companies. The Great Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 allowed the government to give railroad companies easements to build tracks — that is, a right to use sections of another’s property without legally owning it. The Brandt family eventually acquired land in Wyoming that came with pre-existing railroad easements.

In 2001, the owner of the easement formally abandoned all claims to it, presumably returning the property to the Brandts. But the government wanted that land. In 2006, it sued for title to the former easement land on the theory that the government retained a residual claim to it after the railroad abandoned it. The Brandts argue that the government has no such right and that taking their land requires 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.

Indeed, two federal courts of appeals, the Seventh and Federal Circuits, have held that the government didn’t retain any residuary rights. In the Brandts’ case, however, the Tenth Circuit held otherwise. This circuit split is untenable. Over 5,000 miles of abandoned track has been taken by the government since the Trails Act, and about 10,000 property owners are currently fighting in federal courts to hold onto their property.

Of course, given the possible benefits of not having to pay compensation to landowners, the government has responded to these claims by being aggressively litigious, reaching into its endless war-chest of taxpayer-provided resources to challenge the landowners on every tiny point. As the Federal Circuit said, the government’s behavior is “puzzling” in that it is “foregoing the opportunity to minimize the waste both of its own and plaintiffs’ litigation resources, not to mention that of scarce judicial resources,” but also by advancing arguments “so thin as to border on the frivolous.”

Using Eminent Domain to Personally Benefit the Mayor Is Unconstitutional

One of the biggest dangers of not providing adequate constitutional protections for private property is that public officials can misuse their power to take property for private gains. Government actors, after all, have an incentive to act in a way that maximizes political gains and minimizes costs, so without adequate protection from the courts, they can be expected to use eminent to take private property for political (or even personal) benefit.

In 2005, in the now infamous case of Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court unfortunately eroded the protections of the “public use” portion of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause — “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation” — by ruling that the potential for increased tax revenue from a large corporation can count as a “public use.” Suzette Kelo’s house was thus taken and given to Pfizer (which ended up not doing anything with the land).

It’s hard to imagine that government abuse of the Takings Clause could get any worse than that, but one such unfortunate case has arisen in Guam — which, as a U.S. territory, is covered by the Constitution. Artemio Ilagan owns and operates an apartment building in Agana, Guam. His neighbors, Engracia and Felix Ungacta, own an adjoining, residential lot that once lacked access to a road. Unfortunately for Mr. Ilagan, Mr. Ungacta was also the mayor of Agana when the city took a parking lot from Mr. Ilagan and gave it to Mayor Ungacta.

When challenged, the city claimed that the taking was done in accordance with a post-World War II “economic development” plan — the “Agana Plan” — that was enacted to reconfigure irregular lot lines in Agana. At the time of the taking (1981), the Agana Plan had not been used for seven years and, during the years it was used, was never used to take any lots. Moreover, the Plan has not been used in the 30 years since the taking of Mr. Ilagan’s lot.

The Guam trial court held the taking unconstitutional, but Guam’s Supreme Court reversed the holding by purportedly applying Kelo’s standard of judicial deference. Mr. Ilagan is now petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, asking the Court whether it wants to allow other courts to use Kelo to cross the final bridge in eviscerating the Takings Clause — the blatantly pretextual taking of private property to give it to a public official.

Cato has joined the National Federation of Independent Business, 10 other organizations, and a group of constitutional and property law professors, on an amicus brief arguing that the Court should take the case in order to clarify, if not overrule, the broad language of Kelo. Kelo itself says that the government may not “take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit.”

In Kelo, taking the property as part of an “economic development plan” was held to constitute a public purpose. Here, however, the “economic development plan,” was clearly a pretext to take property to benefit a known private party who just “happened” to also be the mayor. We point out that, despite the Court’s distaste with “pretextual takings” articulated in Kelo, courts across the country are split over what a pretextual taking is. Some courts have even ruled out the possibility of their existence. Yet, from the misuse of “blight” condemnations—a designation often used to tear down old neighborhoods for the purposes of gentrification—to situations like Mr. Ilagan’s, pretextual takings occur far too often.

The egregious case of Ilagan v. Ungacta is a perfect vehicle for the Court to clarify the concept of a pretextual taking and to bring some semblance of coherence back to a vital constitutional provision. More on our brief from Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy.

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