Another Bleak Day for Property Owners

Property owners have long suffered under the Supreme Court’s erratic rulings. It got worse today. In Murr v. Wisconsin, the Court ruled against the owners, 5-3, with Justice Kennedy writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts writing a dissent, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, Thomas writing a separate dissent, and Justice Gorsuch taking no part. The problem isn’t simply with the majority’s holding and opinion, it’s with the dissent as well. Only Thomas points in the right direction.

This was a regulatory takings case arising under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, which prohibits government from taking private property for public use without just compensation. In separate conveyances in 1994 and 1995, the Murrs, four siblings, inherited two contiguous lots on the St. Croix River that their parents had purchased in 1960 and 1963. The parents had built an ancestral home on the first lot. They bought the second for investment purposes.

The trouble began in 2004 when the Murrs sought to sell the second lot, valued at $410,000, and use the proceeds to upgrade the ancestral home. But they were blocked by a 1975 local zoning ordinance that treated the two lots as one, even though they had long been deeded and taxed separately. Under the ordinance they had to sell the lots together or not at all. Out $410,000, the Murrs sued, claiming that the ordinance had deprived them of their right to sell their property.

Big Goings-On at Supreme Court as We Race to the End of Term

The Supreme Court today came down with opinions in two cases in which Cato filed a brief. First, in Murr v. Wisconsin, it unfortunately ruled against property owners in an important regulatory-takings case. Then, in Lee v. United States, it correctly found that a criminal defendant who had virtually no chance to win at trial—absent jury nullifcation, which was our focus—was still prejudiced by (and entitled to a new trial due to) his counsel’s wrong advice that he wouldn’t be deported if he pled guilty.

Murr: Whenever you see a court invoke a “multifactor balancing test,” you know it’s just making stuff up. Alas that’s what happened in Murr v. Wisconsin, where a family was deprived of significant use of its property—not to mention economic benefits—because of an unfortunate operation of local law. The Supreme Court compounded that harm by essentially deferring to state determinations of property owners’ rights, and did so by applying that “multifactor” standard that allows it to reach whatever result it wants. This ruling shows that in the grander scheme, as Justice Thomas noted in his dissent, the Supreme Court needs to reevaluate its regulatory-takings jurisprudence altogether. (For more, see Cato’s amicus brief.)

Lee: The Court was correct to give even seemingly hopeless criminal defendants the right to adequate legal repreentation. Jae Lee only took a plea deal because his lawyer repeatedly assured him that he wouldn’t face deportation. The fact that going to trial, where he had no legal leg to stand on, would’ve almost certainly resulted in a longer prison sentence is immaterial. It’s clear that for Lee, who was brought to the United States from South Korea as a child, the risk of being forced to leave the only country he knows was much more important than a longer prison sentence. Lurking under this case was the controversial doctrine-that-must-not-be-named of jury nullification, which was essentially Lee’s only chance for acquittal. (For more, see Cato’s amicus brief.)

Stay tuned Monday for the Supreme Court’s final opinions of the term (especially Trinity Lutheran), as well as decisions on whether to take up the travel-ban case, Masterpiece Bakery (vendors for same-sex weddings), and Peruta (Second Amendment right to carry). And maybe, just maybe, Justice Anthony Kennedy will announce his retirement—though if I had to bet, I’d say he sticks around another year.

Senate Republicans Offer a Bill to Preserve & Expand ObamaCare

Yesterday, I posted “Five Questions I Will Use to Evaluate the Phantom Senate Health Care Bill.” The phantom bill took corporeal form today when Senate Republicans released the text of the “Better Care Reconciliation Act.”

So how does the Senate bill fare with regard to my five questions?

1. Would it repeal the parts of ObamaCare—specifically, community rating—that preclude secure access to health care by causing coverage to become worse for the sick and the Exchanges to collapse?

No. The Senate bill would preserve ObamaCare’s community-rating price controls. To be fair, it would modify them. ObamaCare forbids premiums for 64-year-olds to be more than three times premiums for 18-year-olds. The Senate bill would allow premiums for the older cohort to be up to five times those for the younger cohort. But these “age rating” restrictions are the least binding part of ObamaCare’s community-rating price controls. Those price controls would therefore continue to wreak havoc in the individual market. The Senate bill would also preserve nearly all of ObamaCare’s other insurance regulations. 

2. Would it make health care more affordable, or just throw subsidies at unaffordable care?

The Senate bill, like ObamaCare, would simply throw taxpayer dollars at unaffordable care, rather than make health care more affordable.

Making health care more affordable means driving down health care prices. Recent experiments have shown that cost-conscious consumers do indeed push providers to cut prices. (See below graph. Source.)  

How Cost-Conscious Consumers Drive Down Health Care Prices

California’s Fishy Licensing Fees

One of the liberties protected by the Constitution is the right to do business in other states, on the same terms as companies based in those states. That right is enshrined in the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV, section 2, one of the handful of individual rights that the Framers saw fit to safeguard even before the Bill of Rights was enacted. In fact, ensuring the opportunity to do business out-of-state on equal terms with a state’s residents was one of the principal motivations for holding the Constitutional Convention in the first place. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has condoned California’s violation of that right.

California enacted a set of commercial-fishing license fees that require nonresidents to pay several times more than residents. The system is explicitly discriminatory, harshly regressive, and intentionally protectionist. The Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit, in substantively identical circumstances, have ruled these kinds of provisions to be impermissible: States must charge license fees equally to residents and nonresidents alike, or else bear the burden of justifying their discrimination (which California has made little real effort to do). But an en banc majority of the Ninth Circuit quite literally imposed the opposite rule. Not only did it uphold California’s discrimination, but it supported its holding with guesstimates of tax payments and rough calculations of economic costs that the state itself had never supplied. The result is conflict between two federal circuits and an open door for new methods of discrimination that the Constitution has always forbidden.

Now, a group of fishermen, with amicus support from Cato, is asking the Supreme Court to hear their case and strike down California’s differential commercial fishing license fees. Under the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning, everything California spends on fishery regulation is considered a “subsidy” to that industry—a subsidy paid by resident taxpayers for which the state must be compensated. This framing ignores the fact that nonresident fishermen also pay California sales tax and California income tax for income derived from in-state activities (when their income is enough to qualify for taxation, which it often isn’t) and directly contradicts controlling Supreme Court precedent. This dangerous rationale could otherwise be applied to any number of the nearly one-third of US occupations currently regulated by the states, and if unchecked could contribute significantly to creating just the sort of balkanized national economy that the Constitution was intended to prevent.

The fact of the matter is that California is attempting to protect local business interests at the expense of nonresidents and dress up its blatantly protectionist violation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause in reasonable-sounding language about fairness. The Supreme Court should grant certiorari and remind the Ninth Circuit that this sort of behavior is constitutionally unacceptable.

More School Choice, Less Crime

One of the original arguments for educating children in traditional public schools is that they are necessary for a stable democratic society. Indeed, an English parliamentary spokesman, W.A. Roebuck, argued that mass government education would improve national stability through a reduction in crime.

Public education advocates, such as Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman and the American Federation for Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, still insist that children must be forced to attend government schools in order to preserve democratic values.

Theory

In principle, if families make schooling selections based purely on self-interest, they may harm others in society. For instance, parents may send their children to schools that only shape academic skills. As a result, children could miss out on imperative moral education and harm others in society through a higher proclivity for committing crimes in the future.

However, since families value the character of their children, they are likely to make schooling decisions based on institutions’ abilities to shape socially desirable skills such as morality and citizenship. Further, since school choice programs increase competitive pressures, we should expect the quality of character education to increase in the market for schooling. An increase in the quality of character education decreases the likelihood of criminal activity and therefore improves social order.

Evidence

There are only three studies causally linking school choice programs to criminal activity. Two studies examine the impacts of charter schools and one looks at the private school voucher program in Milwaukee. Each study finds that access to a school choice program substantially reduces the likelihood that a student will commit criminal activity later on in life.

Notably, Dobbie & Fryer (2015) find that winning a random lottery to attend a charter school in Harlem completely eliminates the likelihood of incarceration for males. In addition, they find that female charter school lottery winners are less than half as likely to report having a teen pregnancy.

Note: A box highlighted in green indicates that the study found statistically significant crime reduction.

According to the only causal studies that we have on the subject, school choice programs improve social order through substantial crime reduction. If public education advocates want to continue to cling to the idea that traditional public schools are necessary for democracy, they ought to explain why the scientific evidence suggests the opposite.

Of course, these impacts play a significant role in shaping the lives of individual children. Perhaps more importantly, these findings indicate that voluntary schooling selections can create noteworthy benefits for third parties as well. If we truly wish to live in a safe and stable democratic society, we ought to allow parents to select the schooling institutions that best shape the citizenship skills of their own children.

Even Sex Offenders Have Constitutional Rights

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that a North Carolina preventing sex offenders from accessing social media and other websites – without any attempt to tailor restrictions to potential contact with minors – violated the First Amendment. But restrictions on the freedom of speech aren’t the only unconstitutional deprivations sex offenders face.

In 1994, Minnesota passed what has become arguably the most aggressive and restrictive sex-offender civil-commitment statute in the country. The Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) provides for the indefinite civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” individuals, over and beyond whatever criminal sentence they may have already completed.

And while there is technically a system in place whereby committed individuals can petition for release or a loosening of their restrictions, in the more than 20 years that the MSOP has existed, only one person has ever been fully discharged (someone in the program for offenses committed as a minor, and he was only discharged after a court challenge). As Craig Bolte, one person committed in the MSOP, has testified, there is a distinct feeling that “the only way to get out is to die.”

The Supreme Court has held that states have the authority to commit individuals against their will outside the traditional criminal justice context, but only for the purpose of keeping genuinely dangerous people off the streets while undergoing rehabilitative treatment. Punishment and deterrence are legitimate goals exclusively of the criminal justice system, so any deprivation of liberty for either of those two purposes must follow only from that system, with all the procedural protections our Constitution requires.

Three Lessons from the Tax Defeat in Kansas

Leftists don’t have many reasons to be cheerful.

Global economic developments keep demonstrating (over and over again) that big government and high taxes are not a recipe for prosperity. That can’t be very encouraging for them.

They also can’t be very happy about the Obama presidency. Yes, he was one of them, and he was able to impose a lot of his agenda in his first two years. But that experiment with bigger government produced very dismal results. And it also was a political disaster for the left since Republicans won landslide elections in 2010 and 2014 (you could also argue that Trump’s election in 2016 was a repudiation of Obama and the left, though I think it was more a rejection of the status quo).

But there is one piece of good news for my statist friends. The tax cuts in Kansas have been partially repealed. The New York Times is overjoyed by this development.

The Republican Legislature and much of Kansas has finally turned on Gov. Sam Brownback in his disastrous five-year experiment to prove the Republicans’ “trickle down” fantasy can work in real life — that huge tax cuts magically result in economic growth and more, not less, revenue. …state lawmakers who once abetted the Brownback budgeting folly passed a two-year, $1.2 billion tax increase this week to begin repairing the damage. …It will take years for Kansas to recover.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman also is pleased.

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