Of Raisins and Property Rights

Further to Ilya’s overview of today’s Supreme Court decision in Horne v. Dept. of Agriculture, it should be noted that it’s taken Marvin and Laura Horne over a decade to vindicate their rights in the raisins the government sought to take “for their benefit,” under one of the many economically foolish New Deal and later agricultural marketing schemes Congress has seen fit to enact. But in this lengthy process, the Hornes have helped the Court to settle a fundamental principle, namely, that the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause prohibits the government from taking both real and personal property for public use without just compensation.

At the same time, the Court is still confused in its effort to distinguish and adjudicate what have come to be called “physical” and “regulatory” takings. In Horne, the Court held, the government sought to “physically” take 47 percent of the Hornes’ raisins, much as ten years ago, in its infamous Kelo decision, the Court upheld the City of New London, Connecticut’s “physical” taking of Suzette’s Kelo’s little pink house. In other words, the government sought to take title to the Hornes’ property in their raisins.

By contrast, in a regulatory taking, the government, through regulation, takes certain otherwise legitimate uses an owner has in his property. The owner retains the title; but it’s usually a much devalued title. For almost a century, the Court has struggled to fit these regulatory takings under the Takings Clause—ever since Justice Holmes in 1922 wrote that a regulatory restriction that goes “too far” amounts to a taking requiring compensation. The three-part test the Court set forth in 1978 in its Penn Central decision only muddied those waters. In fact, we see that here when Chief Justice Roberts tries to drive home the point that in Horne we have a physical taking. In response to a point made by the dissent he writes that in such cases “‘we do not ask … whether [the taking] deprives the owner of all economically valuable use’ of the item taken”—citing one of the three Penn Central criteria.

Roberts is right: we don’t ask that when title is taken, as here. But in labeling Horne a “physical” taking, and distinguishing it from a taking that “‘deprives the owner of all economically valuable use’ of the item taken,” Roberts opens up a question: Just what does “the item” refer to? Clearly, Roberts means to refer to “the property” in the sense of the whole parcel or the underlying fee. But that is not “the item” that is taken in a regulatory taking. The owner still owns the fee. What is usually taken is certain “economically valuable uses”—but not all such uses. Indeed, in many regulatory cases the owner is entitled to compensation only when all the uses are taken. That was the case in the Court’s 1992 Lucas decision, where the regulatory restrictions left the owner with an effectively worthless title.

The nub of the matter here is really quite simple, and it was stated by James Madison in his famous 1792 essay, Property: “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.” In other words, it’s not simply the underlying fee that is our property. All the legitimate uses that go with it are our property as well. Thus, a taking occurs and compensation is due not simply when that last use is taken, which is what the Lucas Court effectively held, but when the first use is taken and the title is accordingly devalued. Those uses—those “items”—are our property too. Perhaps the Court will one day give us an integrated theory of property of a kind that Madison understood—before the rise of the modern regulatory state.