Government Forces Rock Solid Church Into a Hard Place

The Fifth Amendment prohibits the taking of private property for public use without just compensation. Still, Congress, regulatory agencies, and even the Supreme Court have each played their part in making receipt of just compensation practically impossible in certain scenarios.

Ministerio Roca Solida, a Nevada church, is one victim of this injustice. It owns a 40-acre parcel in Nevada’s Amargosa Valley entirely surrounded by a federally managed wildlife refuge. It uses this parcel for religious purposes; until an illegal intervention by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, it performed baptisms in a spring-fed stream on the land.

In 2010, the government rerouted the stream to a higher elevation entirely outside of Roca Solida’s property; later that year, rainfall caused the stream to overflow its channel, flooding Roca Solida’s property and causing damage to its facilities. After making a statutorily mandated claim with the Department of the Interior and receiving no response, Roca Solida filed a lawsuit, seeking various kinds of relief for constitutional violations, the negligent waterway rerouting/flooding, and the taking of its stream.

Courtesy of Congress, Roca Solida was forced to split its claims between two different courts: district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over tort claims against the government, while the Court of Federal Claims has exclusive jurisdiction over monetary claims in excess of $10,000. The Supreme Court addressed the constitutional implications of this jurisdictional arrangement most recently in United States v. Tohono O’Odham Nation (2011), holding that a Civil War-era statute (28 U.S.C. § 1500) bars plaintiffs from pursuing monetary claims in the CFC while any other claims with “substantial overlap in operative facts” are pending in district court. Relying on Tohono, the CFC dismissed Roca Solida’s takings claim. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed—though in concurrence, Judge Taranto noted that Tohono’s “application of § 1500 may soon present a substantial constitutional question about whether federal statutes have deprived Roca Solida of a judicial forum to secure just compensation for a taking.”

With the six-year statute of limitations for its taking claim set to expire in August 2016 and no end in sight to the ongoing district court litigation, Roca Solida has effectively been forced to choose among its claims. The church has petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn its ruling in Tohono, arguing that the case’s application here violates its constitutional rights.

Cato has joined the National Association of Reversionary Property Owners on an amicus brief supporting that petition and asking the Court to clarify that its holding in Tonoho does not (and cannot) allow § 1500 to bar owners from vindicating their right to just compensation. We challenge the Court to confront the fact that Tohono has caused federal law to prevent Roca Solida from vindicating its Fifth Amendment claims.

While § 1500 was never intended to be a tool of the state, the Court’s ruling effectively turned a blind eye to the government’s routine reliance on such jurisdictional statutes to deny takings victims’ meritorious claims. The Court cannot simply defer to Congress to correct § 1500, as its own decision in Tohono is the legal linchpin responsible for the lower court’s dismissal of Roca Solida’s CFC claim. In order for Roca Solida to receive complete relief for the multiple wrongs it suffered, the Court must revisit Tohono and at least restrict § 1500’s ambit to exclude constitutional claims. No plaintiff should be forced by the three branches of government to “forgo one constitutional right to vindicate another.”

The Supreme Court will consider whether to take up Ministerio Roca Solida v. United States when it returns from its summer recess.