Tag: takings clause

Likely Supreme Court Tie Would Be a Loss to Property Owners

Today, the Supreme Court heard argument in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is a Fifth Amendment Takings Clause challenge involving beachfront property (that I previously discussed here).

Essentially, Florida’s ”beach renourishment” program created more beach but deprived property owners of the rights they previously had – exclusive access to the water, unobstructed view, full ownership of land up to the “mean high water mark,” etc. That is, the court turned beachfront property into “beachview” property.  After the property owners successfully challenged this action, the Florida Supreme Court – “SCOFLA” for those who remember the Bush v. Gore imbroglio – reversed the lower court (and overturned 100 years of common property law), ruling that the state did not owe any compensation, or even a proper eminent domain hearing.

As Cato adjunct scholar and Pacific Legal Foundation senior staff attorney Timothy Sandefur noted in his excellent op-ed on the case in the National Law Journal, “[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.”

I sat in on the arguments today and predict that the property owners will suffer a narrow 4-4 defeat.  That is, Justice Stevens recused himself – he owns beachfront property in a different part of Florida that is subject to the same renourishment program – and the other eight justices are likely to split evenly.  And a tie is a defeat in this case because it means the Court will summarily affirm the decision below without issuing an opinion or setting any precedent.

By my reckoning, Justice Scalia’s questioning lent support to the property owners’ position, as did Chief Justice Roberts’ (though he could rule in favor of the “judicial takings” doctrine in principle but perhaps rule for the government on a procedural technicality here).  Justice Alito was fairly quiet but is probably in the same category as the Chief Justice.  Justice Thomas was typically silent but can be counted on to support property rights.  With Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor expressing pro-government positions, that leaves Justice Kennedy, unsurprisingly, as the swing vote.  Kennedy referred to the case as turning on a close question of state property law, which indicates his likely deference to SCOFLA.

For more analysis of the argument, see SCOTUSblog.  Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the land owners here, and earlier this week I recorded a Cato Podcast to that effect. Cato also recently filed a brief urging the Court to hear another case of eminent domain abuse in Florida, 480.00 Acres of Land v. United States.

The Nets Finally Win!

Unfortunately, that win comes as another blow to property rights:

The last major obstacle to a groundbreaking for the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn fell Tuesday when New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, dismissed a challenge to the state’s use of eminent domain on behalf of the developer, Bruce C. Ratner.

Mr. Ratner, whose 22-acre development has been delayed for three years by a flurry of lawsuits, the collapse of the credit and real estate markets and a glut of luxury housing, plans to begin selling tax-free bonds next month to finance the development’s cornerstone project: an 18,000-seat basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues near downtown.

Given the high-profile nature of the would-be new tenants of the land, this is the most famous property rights case currently being litigated, but it’s the same ol’ story: rich company wants land on the cheap, company gets the government to seize the land, property owners lose their land for the benefit of another private party for a decidedly not public use.

And, as I allude to in this post’s title, this loss comes to the 0-13 New Jersey Nets. (Even the Redskins can win a game without getting the government to bail them out!)

And while the story goes on to promise all this new office space and buildings to go on the newly acquired land, we know from recent experience that a successful deal doesn’t automatically trigger the jobs and benefit promised. To give you an idea what the rest of Brooklyn is looking like:

If construction begins in the coming weeks as expected, Atlantic Yards will stand out in a city where 530 different construction projects are stalled, sitting lifeless and without adequate financing in virtually every neighborhood.

One would think that if there was such a guarantee of money to be made, investors would be funding one of those 530 other projects in the city.

And if you think a brand spanking new stadium is more likely to bring in business to the immediate area, just ask the shop owners around the new Yankee Stadium how business was this year – when that team put up the best record in baseball and won the World Series. (NB: Go Red Sox!)

In any event, Cato continues the fight for the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. We filed a brief in a case coming before the Court next week, Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which can be found here; and just yesterday filed a brief urging the Court to consider 480.00 Acres v. United States, which you can read here.

HT: Jonathan Blanks

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. 

When the Government Takes Your Money, It Takes Your Property

When Daniel and Andrea McClung applied for a permit to build a small business on their property in Sumner, Washington, the city charged them nearly $50,000 to pay for improvements to the city’s entire storm drainage system.

The McClungs sued the city under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, whose Takings Clause prohibits the government from “taking” private property for public use without just compensation.  They argue that the city cannot force them to pay fees for off-site pipes absent proof that their development would have a specific detrimental effect on the existing drainage system–and without any evidence that the impact was worth $50,000.

The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the city, reasoning that money is not property (so there could be no unconstitutional taking) and that because the fees were imposed by ordinance (so the city’s determination that the pipes needed upgrading was justification enough for the fees).  The McClungs have now asked the Supreme Court to review their case.

Cato, joined by the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Building Industry Association of Washington, argues that this case is a perfect vehicle for the Court to revisit the scope of Fifth Amendment protections.

Our brief highlights the deep divisions among state and federal courts over several important issues, such as whether the Takings Clause applies to legislative (as opposed to bureaucratic) exactions and whether it applies to monetary exactions (not just burdens on land use).  The Court should take this case to ensure that the standard for reviewing development conditions is uniform across the country and make clear that property right protections do not depend on ill-defined distinctions such as the form of property demanded by the government or the manner in which a condition is imposed.