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Big Supreme Court Victories For Individuals’ Property Rights

The Supreme Court last week issued two major decisions in cases signaling the Court’s strong backing of property rights. Tyler v. Hennenpin County, Minnesota and Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency. ALF – which long has advocated for protection of both individual and corporate property rights – filed amicus briefs in both Tyler and Sackett. The briefs were co-authored by ALF Advisory Council member Nancie Marzulla and ALF Executive Vice President & General Counsel Larry Ebner.

The property rights issue was front and center in Tyler. Geraldine Tyler is a 94-year-old woman forced to move from her one-bedroom condominium into a senior living facility, leaving her condominium vacant and with no one in charge of paying the property taxes, which eventually amounted to her owing the County $15,000 in back taxes and other substantial piled-on lugs. To recover the taxes, Hennenpin County seized her property and sold it for $40,000, keeping the excess $25,000 for itself. Under Minnesota law, keeping the excess proceeds in a property tax sale was lawful, and Hennenpin County had in place a process for deciding how it would utilize the proceeds from such sales.

Tyler challenged this state law as violative of the Fifth Amendment’s Just Compensation (Taking) Clause and the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause. ALF’s amicus brief in support of Tyler, arguing for vigorous enforcement of the Fifth Amendment, explained that a State cannot legislate away property rights, and that the state law cannot abrogate Fifth Amendment rights by simply redefining private property interest, here proceeds from a home sale, as public property.  The Supreme Court unanimously held that Ms. Tyler had alleged a taking claim under the Fifth Amendment in a ruling that closely aligns with the arguments made by ALF in its amicus brief. The Court did not reach the Eighth Amendment issue.

The second case, Sackett, involved the issue of how broadly the term “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act should be defined. This issue is important because the EPA and the U.S. Corps of Engineers , base their regulatory authority over land use as “wetlands” directly on this definition. A broad definition means more authority to regulate land use.

The Sacketts challenged the overly broad regulatory definition of this term, under which the EPA had denied their request for a wetland permit to construct a home on land that was not on or even touching water. ALF’s amicus brief in support of the Sacketts, joined by Conservatives for Property Rights and the Committee for Justice, argued that the overly broad definition of the term operated as a blank check in which federal agency officials could deem any land use proposal they wanted to block as a “wetland.” Highlighting the property rights implications, ALF pointed out that deeming private land a wetland often results in leaving the property owner with no remaining “economically viable uses of that land,” triggering Fifth Amendment protections.

The Government argued that the Sacketts’ home construction “might affect” a water of the United States, and therefore deemed the Sacketts’ land wetland. But all nine justices rejected this argument. Consistent with ALF’s advocacy, the decision by Justice Alito joined by Justices Roberts, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Barrett, and in concurring opinions drafted by the remaining Justices, upheld a plain meaning interpretation of the term and that adjacent wetlands must have a “continuous surface connection” to constitute a water of the United States. By narrowing the definition of “waters of the United States” to a reasonable, plain-meaning interpretation, the Court has helped prevent needless takings of private property.

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