Tag: takings

Net Neutrality Violates the First and Fifth Amendments

This blogpost was co-authored by legal associate Matt Gilliam.

In December 2010, the FCC adopted Preserving the Open Internet, a “network neutrality” order regulating broadband internet access service. Issued under authority (ostensibly) derived from 24 disparate provisions of federal communications law, Preserving the Open Internet is predicated on three basic rules: transparency, no blocking, and no discrimination.

Broadly speaking, “transparency” requires broadband providers to “disclose network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of services.” The “no blocking” rule forbids fixed broadband providers from “blocking lawful content, applications, services, and non-harmful devices.” Meanwhile, mobile broadband providers are restricted from blocking “lawful websites” and certain applications. The “No Discrimination” rule prohibits broadband providers from unreasonable discrimination in transmitting lawful network traffic.

The promulgation of the FCC’s network neutrality order will have serious consequences for the constitutional rights of broadband providers. One such provider, Verizon, now seeks to challenge the FCC order in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. This week, Cato joined TechFreedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Free State Foundation, on a brief urging the court to uphold Verizon’s First and Fifth Amendment rights.

We first argue that the FCC order violates broadband providers’ First Amendment rights by compelling speech, forcing them to transmit messages from content providers that they might not wish to convey, preventing them from transmitting messages they want to convey, prohibiting them from exercising editorial discretion, and generally restricting the mode and content of their communications. Because the order singles out certain speakers, it demands “strict scrutiny,” which it cannot survive because it neither serves a compelling governmental interest nor is narrowly tailored. We next argue that the FCC order violates broadband providers’ Fifth Amendment rights by subjecting them to physical and regulatory takings. The FCC order enacts a physical taking by granting the content providers an unrestricted right to occupy property while slicing through the bundle of property rights broadband providers enjoy as network owners. The order essentially gives the content providers unlimited use of the network owners’ physical property without any compensation, forbidding the rightful owners from exercising their right to control the use of their property and exclude others.

Furthermore, in forcing network owners to give network space to content providers, the regulation shifts costs to consumers, discouraging them from using broadband service and thus diminishing the network’s economic value. The FCC order also constitutes a regulatory taking because it prevents broadband providers from attaining their networks’ full economic value and subverts network owners’ reasonable investment-backed expectations. Finally, we argue that the FCC’s assertion of authority to regulate the Internet is a dangerous aggrandizement of agency power. In sum, while seeking to benefit content providers, the FCC has promulgated a regulation that violates the First and Fifth Amendment rights of broadband providers.

The case of Verizon v. FCC will be argued at the D.C. Circuit later this summer.

Can the Government Destroy Propety Values ‘Temporarily’ Without Compensation?

This blogpost was co-authored by Trevor Burrus.

A seemingly complicated legal case that has caught Cato’s attention, CCA Associates v. United States, boils down to a simple constitutional question: If the government reneges on a contract and forces a property owner to rent apartments at below-market rates for longer than originally agreed, does it constitute a taking under the Fifth Amendment (which would require the government to pay just compensation)?

In 1961, Congress amended the National Housing Act to create incentives for private builders to supply housing to low- and moderate-income families. Builders were given below-market mortgages backed by the federal government and, in return, the owners agreed to certain restrictions from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the most relevant being limitations on raising rent. Owners were also given the right to pre-pay the 40-year mortgage after 20 years, however, freeing them at that time from their rent-control obligations.

In 1990, as one 20-year period came to a close, Congress took away the owners’ right to pre-pay their mortgages. In 1996, however, Congress returned the property owners’ right to pre-pay. Therefore, between 1991 (when the original 20-year period would have lapsed) and 1996, the property owners were forced to rent at below-market rates.

CCA Associates is one of many similarly situated property owners who are suing the federal government for its clear act of duplicity. CCA Associates’ case, among many others, has been bouncing back and forth between the Court of Federal Claims and the Federal Circuit for many years.

One of the key questions is how to determine the degree to which the government’s actions economically affected CCA Associates’ property. One view is that there was substantial economic impact during the five-year period between when Congress eliminated and then restored the pre-pay right – CCA Associates lost approximately 81% of the property’s possible value during those five years. Another view looks at the impact during the five-year period as fraction of the entire life of the property, not just the diminished value during the five-year period. Under this calculation, CCA Associates only lost 18% of the total value of the property.

The Federal Circuit adopted the latter formula and held that 18% is not a substantial enough economic impact to constitute a Fifth Amendment taking. Cato has joined the National Federation of Independent Business, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and Professor Steven Eagle of George Mason University Law School on an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take CCA Associates’ case.

We argue that adopting the Federal Circuit’s answer to the so-called “denominator question” – that is, whether the denominator in the “economic impact” fraction should be the entire life of the property or the shorter (here five-year) period during which the government temporarily took the owners’ right to rent at the market price – could preclude all possible claims that the government committed a “temporary taking.” By choosing a big-enough denominator, courts can always characterize an economic impact as being below the constitutional threshold.

We also argue that, in applying the Supreme Court’s factors in the famous 1978 Penn Central case (which set up the analytical framework for regulatory takings), the Federal Circuit incorrectly treated the factors as a magic formula and ignored other relevant factors. Finally, we point out how courts are obviously confused about the proper standards to apply in these cases, thus creating a perfect time for the Supreme Court’s guidance.

The Court will decide this fall whether to hear CCA Associates v. United States.

The Government Must Compensate for Property Damage Even If Its Taking Was Only ‘Temporary’

Cato today filed an amicus brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court review Arkansas Game & Fish Commission v. United States.  Here’s the case:

The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission owns and operates 23,000 acres of land as a wildlife refuge and recreational preserve; the preserve’s trees are essential to its use for these purposes. Clearwater Dam, a federal flood control project, lies 115 miles upstream. Water is released from the dam in quantities governed by a pre-approved “management plan” that considers agricultural, recreational, and other effects downstream. 

Between 1993 and 2000, the government released more water than authorized under the plan. AGFC repeatedly objected that these excessive releases flooded the preserve during its growing season, which significantly damaged and eventually decimated tree populations. In 2001, the government acknowledged the havoc its flooding had wreaked on AGFC’s land and ceased plan deviations. By then, however, the preserve and its trees were severely damaged, so AGFC sued the government, claiming damages under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

The district court awarded $5.8 million in lost timber and reforestation costs based on the substantiality of the government’s flooding and the foreseeability of the damage it caused. The Federal Circuit reversed that decision, holding that the flooding of private land can never be a taking unless that flooding is permanent. It further held that, in determining whether the government’s intrusion on AGFC’s land was permanent or temporary, courts must focus on the character of the policy behind the intrusion rather the effects of the intrusion itself. A taking cannot have occurred here because each deviation from the plan constituted a “temporary” policy, the court concluded, so AGFC had no constitutional remedy.

AGFC is asking the Supreme Court to review its case; the Court itself has recognized that something less than a permanent invasion of land can constitute a compensable taking. Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation on a brief urging the Court to hear the case and uphold the Fifth Amendment rights of property owners whose land is destroyed by the federal government. Our brief highlights the conflict between the Federal Circuit’s decision and both Supreme Court and lower court precedent. First, an invasion of land by flooding is no different from an invasion of land by any other means. Second, the government’s self-professed “intent” that a possible taking be “temporary” should have no bearing on whether a Fifth Amendment remedy exists when that taking has, in fact, occurred. Instead, the relevant inquiry should be whether the government caused permanent damage and, if so, how much.

The Federal Circuit’s new rule — that, so long as it might be “temporary,” no government flooding can be remedied under the Fifth Amendment — runs afoul of the letter and spirit of a constitutional provision meant to compensate property owners for government intrusions on their land. We urge the Court to grant AGFC’s petition and maintain constitutional protections for private property.

The Supreme Court will decide in the new year whether to take the case, and would hear argument in the fall if it does.

Rent Control Violates Property Rights and Due Process

This blogpost was coauthored by Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus, who also worked on the brief discussed below.

Rent control is literally a textbook example of bad economic policy. Economics textbooks often use it as an example of how price ceilings create shortages, poor quality goods, and under-the-table dealings. A 1992 survey revealed that 93 percent of economists believe that rent control laws reduce both the quality and quantity of housing.

As expected, therefore, New York City’s Rent Stabilization Law—the most (in)famous in the country—has led to precisely these effects: housing is scarce, apartment buildings are dilapidated because owners can’t charge enough to fix them, and housing costs have only increased (in part because costs are transferred to non-rent mechanisms such as “non-refundable deposits”). Yet the RSL persists, benefiting those grandfathered individuals who rent at lower rates but hurting the city as a whole.

Harmon v. Kimmel challenges New York’s law on the grounds that it is an arbitrary and unsupportable regulation amounting to an uncompensated taking that violates the Fifth Amendment.

Jim Harmon’s family owns and lives in a five-story brownstone in the Central Park West Historical District. The Harmons inherited the building—and along with it three rent-controlled tenants. Those tenants have occupied apartments in the building for a combined total of 91 years at a rate 59 percent below market. In their lawsuit, however, the Harmons face many unfriendly precedents that have given states free reign to regulate property, to the point that it is occupied on an essentially permanent basis while surviving Fifth Amendment scrutiny.

One way to challenge some of these laws is to argue they are so arbitrary and poorly justified that they violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Because this is an especially difficult type of challenge to bring, Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute on a brief supporting the Harmons’ request that the Supreme Court review lower-court rulings against them. Although the Court has ruled that the Takings Clause does not permit challenges based on claims that the alleged taking fails to “substantially advance legitimate state interests,” the Due Process Clause is an independent textual provision.

We thus clarify the relationship between property rights and due process, arguing that a law which advances no legitimate governmental purpose can be challenged under the Due Process Clause. To hold otherwise would be to deny property owners any meaningful avenue for defending their property from onerous and irrational regulations.

A Property Rights Victory in the Magnolia State

One of the unambiguously good results from last Tuesday’s off-year elections came in Mississippi, the state I called home the year before I moved to D.C.  By the impressive margin of 73% to 27%, voters in the Magnolia State took a stand against judicially sanctioned eminent domain abuse, specifically the government’s taking of private property in the name of so-called “economic development.”  

By passing Measure 31, which prohibits most transfers of condemned land to private parties for 10 years after condemnation, Mississippi joins 44 other states in enacting legislation that strengthens property rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s horrific ruling in Kelo v. New London.  In Kelo (2005), you’ll recall, the Court held that state and local governments can condemn private property not for some sort of public project like a highway or military base nor because it is a “blight” that creates a health or safety risk, but simply to transfer to another private party who claims to put it to better economic use. 

We at Cato are all in favor of economic development, of course, but not if that development comes via raw government power that treads on constitutionally protected individual rights.  If a developer thinks he can put a given piece of land to a higher-value use, let him buy that property fair and square from the owner rather than effectively forcing a sale at below-market value.

Indeed, Kelo’s holding was flawed precisely because its rationale that transferring ownership of “economically blighted” property would promote economic development is bad economics. If a proposed project were actually a better use of a given property, the developer would be willing to pay a price sufficient to induce the current owners to leave.

Kelo also undermines property security, making owners less willing to invest in their property and use it productively, lest the government swoop in, declare it “blighted,” and sell it to someone else. And securing property rights is not just a good thing economically.  It also helps prevent powerful private interest groups from undercutting the property rights of minorities and other groups who may be vulnerable due to prejudice or political disadvantage.

And the American people agree: Kelo turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for developers and their public-official cronies, such that most of the country is now better protected against eminent domain abuse than it was before Kelo.  Notably absent from the list of states where property rights are better off, however, is New York (see my comment on a recent instance of eminent domain abuse in the Empire State).

The judiciary’s abdication of its role as a protector of property rights is bad enough, but our elected officials haven’t done much better. Tellingly, the drivers of successful anti-Kelo legislation have tended not to be state legislators (with some exception) but rather citizen-activists.  While special-interest groups, such as big car companies in Mississippi, may pressure legislators to avoid anti-Kelo legislation, even as referenda show that popular opinion is on the side of the property rights activists.

Measure 31 is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. The Founders took care to protect private property rights in the Constitution, and it’s heartening to see citizens taking an active role to vindicate those protections even when the Supreme Court abdicates its duty to do so.

For more commentary on the Mississippi vote, see Ilya Somin’s recent op-ed.

Another Judicial Takings Case Reaches the Supreme Court

For over a century, Montana citizens have used non-navigable streambeds along their properties for various purposes without objection from the state government.  The hydroelectric energy company PPL Montana and thousands of other private parties exercised their rights over these non-navigable stretches that the state never claimed. 

Last year, however, the Montana Supreme Court overturned well-settled state property law by effectively converting the title in hundreds of miles of riverbeds to state ownership. The majority of the court ruled that the entirety of the Missouri, Clark Fork, and Madison rivers were navigable at the time of Montana’s statehood, producing a broad holding that eradicates the right to use rivers and riverbanks that Montanans had enjoyed for over a century.

PPL Montana thus asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state court’s decision; Cato filed an amicus brief supporting that request, which the Court granted.  Now that the case is before the Court, Cato has joined the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, American Farm Bureau Federation, and National Federation of Independent Business on a brief supporting the property owners.

We are chiefly concerned with two parts of the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling:  First, the court incorrectly evaluated navigability for the purpose of establishing title – finding the entirety of the rivers at issue navigable (and thus belonging to the state) because portions of them are – contravening the legal standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Utah (which analyzed the riverbeds section-by-section to achieve a “precise” assessment of navigability).  Second, the court effectively transferred a substantial quantity of land from private owners to the state – a judicial taking that violates either the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendments (as the Court described in the recent Stop the Beach Renourishment case, in which Cato also filed a brief).  

In short, the Court should reaffirm the Utah standard for navigability in the context of establishing title and protect private property owners against judicial takings.  By doing so, it would send a strong message to state courts across the nation that judicial usurpations of property rights are just as unconstitutional as those undertaken by other branches of government.

The Court will hear the case of PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana late this year or in early 2012.  Again, you can find Cato’s brief here.

Boxing Gym Scores Knockout Blow for Property Rights

Last month, I wrote about a major eminent domain struggle in National City, California.  City officials had decided to declare almost seven hundred properties blighted even before conducting any sort of blight study, which eventually turned out to be riddled with errors. 

At the center of the fight is a private, nonprofit boxing gym that has helped keep hundreds of at-risk kids in school and off the streets.  The city wanted to bulldoze the center so a wealthy developer can build luxury condos and stores. 

In 2007, the Institute for Justice teamed up with the gym and filed suit to stop the city from taking the property, and here’s video about their legal fight:

Four years later, IJ scored a knockout blow against eminent domain abuse:  Last Thursday, the Superior Court of California struck National City’s entire 692-property eminent domain zone and found that National City lacked a legal basis for its blight declaration.  

This is a major victory for California property owners, and the first case to apply the property reforms that the state enacted to counter the 2005 Kelo decision.  Learn more about the victory here.

I previously wrote about eminent domain shenanigans here and you can read more from Cato on property rights here.