Chief Justice John Roberts has taken some lumps for certain decisions he has issued during his tenure on the Supreme Court, but he has again led the way in protecting the rights of property owners from a government often all too eager to take them away.
Roberts wrote the unanimous opinion in Tyler v. Hennepin County, holding that local governments violate the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause when they seize property to satisfy a tax debt and then keep the excess value.
The takings clause provides that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” This provision requires two things: that a government taking of private property be for a “public use,” and that the property owner be justly compensated.
This protection is a reaction to the historical right of sovereigns to seize property from their subjects. The Fifth Amendment prohibits such outright theft, balancing the government’s authority to take property with the citizen’s right to own it.
Governments routinely take property from citizens for reasons such as building public works and roads, and “just compensation” is often understood to be based on fair market value. Some localities, however, take property for more insidious purposes. They identify homeowners who owe property tax, seize their home, and then sell it to satisfy the amount owed while keeping the rest of the value for the local coffers.
Rather than any “public good” contemplated by the Fifth Amendment, this scheme is simply a convenient way to raise revenue.
In Tyler v. Hennepin County, 94-year-old retiree Geraldine Tyler challenged this underhanded practice. Roberts described her situation this way:
Hennepin County, Minnesota, sold Geraldine Tyler’s home for $40,000 to satisfy a $15,000 tax bill. Instead of returning the remaining $25,000, the County kept it for itself. The question presented is whether this constituted a taking of property without just compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
The Supreme Court unanimously held that it did. This may signal a change in how the court applies the takings clause.
Shortly before Roberts’ 2005 appointment to the Supreme Court, for example, the court expanded the government’s power to take property in Kelo v. City of New London. While the Fifth Amendment requires a “public use,” such as infrastructure, public buildings or parks, or environmental protection, the court in Kelo opted instead for the broader term “public purpose.”
More importantly, the court held that this public purpose category was so broad that it included economic development by private parties that might yield some undefined public benefit.
While the public use clause is plainly supposed to limit the government’s power to take private property, this version of it was enough, in Kelo, to justify taking privately owned homes and transferring them to another private owner for development. Dissenting in Kelo, Justice Clarence Thomas explained that if “such ‘economic development’ takings are for a ‘public use,’ any taking is, and the Court has erased the Public Use Clause from our Constitution.”
In reaction, many states passed laws to prevent this sort of taking from occurring again. Following this and throughout his tenure, the chief justice has emerged as a solid defender of property rights, particularly in cases involving the takings clause.
Much of 20th-century jurisprudence has undervalued economic and property rights. This trend ignores the fact that the American Revolution was fueled by resentment toward British taxation and abuse of the colonists’ property. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, wrote, “As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”
However, despite the clear importance of property and taxpayer rights at the time of the founding, the Supreme Court has often searched for new, unenumerated rights while ignoring fundamental ones that appear in the text of the Constitution itself.
The Roberts Court has been different. In Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, for example, Roberts wrote that a state law requiring that labor organizers be allowed onto private property was a taking and, therefore, required that the property owner receive just compensation. Now, in Hennepin County, the court has further clarified the importance of limits on the government’s ability to seize property.
It is important to note that many violations of property rights do not come from the federal government, but rather from the states and localities. Threats to liberty and our rights to peacefully enjoy our property can come from all directions.
In the past, greedy sheriffs and barons openly gouged the people for their hard-earned savings. Since then, local governments have contrived ways of taking citizens’ property in the guise of pursuing other priorities. Roberts has led the Supreme Court to again say that the Constitution draws a line that governments at any level may not cross.
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