Category: Uncategorized

A Good Read on Eminent Domain at the Border

For an interesting article about the takings of land for the controversial border fence separating the US from Mexico, check out an article by Pro Publica, entitled THE TAKING. You can find it at:

https://features.propublica.org/eminent-domain-and-the-wall/the-taking-texas-government-property-seizure/

This article is a tad on the long side for an on-line piece, but it is not lawyer stuff; it is written for the intelligent layman in clear English and provides a lot of information about the law of eminent domain, and about the dark side of government practices in land acquisition. Not a pretty story, but it provides ample support for Lewis Orgel’s observation in his treatise “Valuation Under Eminent Domain” (1953) that eminent domain is “the dark corner of the law.” That it is.

This article, by the way, harks back to the 1960s — 1970s era of law journal articles that were critical of government land acquisition practices  and that revealed abuses of condemnees’ rights and exposed the prevalent undercompensation of condemnees. Some of these abuses were rectified by courts and legislatures, but only some. The law of eminent domain remains basically biased against condemnees, and the US Supreme Court, as well as the California Supreme Court have explicitly conceded that the constitutionally mandated “just compensation” provided for in the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause is actually undercompensation. See for example Gideon Kanner, “Fairness and Justice,” or Judicial Bait-and-Switch? 4 Albany Law Review 38 (2011).


Reading this Pro Publica article will be well worth your while if you have any interest in eminent domain.

Run for the Hills! The California Supreme Court Gets Back Into the Regulatory Takings Game

Word reaches us that the California Supreme Court has granted review in a regulatory taking case: Bottini v. County of San Diego. The issue in question is described on David Ettinger’s Cal Supreme Court blog “At the Podium” as follows.

•The court granted review in Bottini v. City of San Diego, where the Fourth District, Division One, Court of Appeal held in a published opinion that San Diego erroneously required environmental review of a single-family-home construction project. The City relied on “historical resources” and “unusual circumstances” provisions in the California Environmental Quality Act. However, the appellate court also upheld the dismissal on summary judgment of the property owners’ constitutional claims under the takings, equal protection, and due process clauses. It was the property owners whose petition for review the court granted. [Update: The Supreme Court apparently isn’t interested in the CEQA issue as much as it is in the takings issue. The case’s issue, as summarized by court staff, is this: “Does the ‘substantially advances’ formula used in Landgate, Inc. v. California Coastal Com’n (1998) 17 Cal.4th 1006 or the Penn Central Transp. Co. v. New York City (1978) 438 U.S. 104 test (see Lingle v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc. (2005) 544 U.S. 528) determine whether there has been a regulatory taking under the California Constitution?” . . .]

Ettinger is a partner in the appellate powerhouse law firm of Horvitz & Levy, and runs his blog on the doings of California appellate courts.

We’ll keep our eye on this one. SCOTUS held in the Lingle case that the “substantially advance” test is properly applicable to substantive due process, not to takings cases. So this may well be the California Supreme Court’s effort to bring its own jurisprudence into line with SCOTUS legal doctrine. Or, if we are lucky, it may be a step by the state high court to pause and at least begin bringing some fairness and intellectual order into this misbegotten field of law. Then again, maybe not. So stay tuned and keep in mind Yogi Berra’s wisdom: “Prediction is very difficult. Especially about the future.”

What’s the US Solicitor General Up to in the Knick Case?

If you have been following the demands made on the parties by the US Supreme Court in Knick v. Township of Scott, here is the latest. If you haven’t done so, the quick summary is this: Ms. Knick’s petition for certiorari was granted, the case was briefed and oral arguments were held supposedly on the issue of whether the court should “revisit” (read, overrule) another bit of its wretched past takings handiwork consisting of Williamson County etc. v. Hamilton Bank. That judicial gem held inter alia that for baffling reasons in inverse condemnation cases (claiming “Just Compensation” for uncompensated government takings of property) and no others, the constitutionally aggrieved plaintiff may not sue in federal court, but rather must seek relief in state courts.

This had unanticipated consequences, namely, that if the plaintiff-owner followed Williamson County and sued in state court, the government defendants could remove it to federal court (being as the controversy involved the federal constitution) and then argue that the case should be dismissed because the plaintiff-owner should have sued in state court which of course he did, only to have his case removed by the defendant to federal court. No, we are not making this up. Nor are we making up the fact that many federal judges would then dismiss the case as being in the wrong court, with the result that there was no court where the constitutionally aggrieved property owner could have his case heard.

So the grant of certiorari in the Knick case was widely taken as a signal that SCOTUS had seen the error of its ways and was about to fix things. Then came the oral argument which made it clear that, to put it in printable language, their Lordships were out of it big time; some of them confused direct and inverse condemnation, one wanted to talk about abstention, one let it slip that she was trying to “get around” prior law, and another asked why not “let this sleeping dog lie.” In short, an intellectual disaster area.

Then came a ray of light. Acting on its own motion, the court ordered a reargument and asked for some additional letter-briefs from the parties, which have just been filed, by inter alia the US Solicitor General as amicus curiae who — surprise, surprise — for a change has taken a position favorable to the outcome sought by the plaintiff-owner. WoW!

Now, the parties have filed their respective letter-briefs and the commentariat has shifted into high gear. As regular readers of this blog know, our favorite is Robert Thomas’ blog www.inversecondemnation.com As usual, in this case Mr. Thomas does not disappoint. We won’t duplicate here his efforts, so, particularly if you are a credentialed takings junkie who wants to get into this stuff, we suggest you go to his blog and browse through the last few posts dealing with the Knick intellectual disaster.

But this post was supposed to be about the role of the US Solicitor General who is in the case as amicus curiae, wasn’t it? So here goes. The SG takes the position that the taking of property without contemporaneous compensation does not violate the Fifth Amendment as long as the owner is also provided with “a reasonable, certain, and adequate mechanism to obtain compensation.” However, continues the SG, in the meantime “the property owner is quite literally deprived of the Just Compensation mandated by the Constitution.” So, reasons the SG, that owner should be able to bring an action under Section 1983 in federal court “to vindicate that right.” What right? If the delay between the taking and the payment of compensation is not a violation of the Takings Clause, than what is the deprivation that is the proper basis for a lawsuit in federal court?

We await the denouement of this saga with bated breath. The next oral argument is scheduled for early January, and we may learn more then. Then again, we may not. So here comes our usual advice: Stay tuned.

Ooops, we almost forgot. The original argument too took place before an eight-Justice court, being as Justice Kavanaugh was not yet in the saddle. But he will be during the second oral argument. However, none of the usual crystal ball gazers can tell where he stands on the taking issue. So watch he dispatches from that second argument. It should be interesting.

Bye, bye General Motors Poletown Plant

Remember the Poletown case? Sure you do. That was the infamous decision of a divided Michigan Supreme Court, that permitted the eminent domain taking of the Detroit community of Poletown in order to raze it and turn over its site to General Motors for a new Cadillac plant. The taking displaced an unoffending, diverse community, razing hundreds of homes, businesses and churches, as well as a major hospital, in order to subsidize GM which threatened to build this facility in Ohio, unless Detroit ponied up. It did. This caper cost the taxpayers some $200 million and it spared GM having to pay its full tax share. It was supposed to produce thousands of jobs. But it didn’t. By the time the dispatch about closing this plant came from the Detroit Free Press, there were only 1500 employees at that plant instead the 5000 that were promised.

See https://www.freep.com/story/money/business/john-gallagher/2018/11/26/gm-detroit-hamtramck-plant-closing/2114067002/ (cut and paste this link in your browser).

And of course, as you may remember, eventually GM filed for bankruptcy in the 2008 Great Recession anyway and defaulted on a bunch of bonds held by individual investors trying to save for their old age. In a case of too little and too late, in due course the Michigan Supreme Court came to its senses and overruled the Poletown case in Wayne County v. Hathcock.

And so Detroit joins the list of similar venues in which much was promised but little or nothing delivered after wasting fortunes in public funds and grossly undercompensating the displaced condemnee-owners of land in the path of such projects.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Your faithful servant, along with the late Bert Burgoyne of Detroit, and Toby Brigham the lion of Miami, were counsel in that case, representing the Sisters of Mercy, owners of that taken hospital.

Happy Thanksgiving!

In spite of all the kvetching and bitching, it’s time to pause and give thanks for our good fortune in having been granted the privilege of living in America. So enjoy your festive food, and do your shopping if you are strong enough to handle it, but as you do all that find time to give thanks.

The Knick Case — Big News from the Big Court

Calling all takings junkies!

The US Supreme Court has ordered re-argument in Knick v. Township of Scott, and ordered the parties to file additional short letter-briefs by the end of November. Our colleague, Robert Thomas has put the Court’s full order in his blog www.inversecondemnation.com. So if you have an interest in regulatory takings, get over to that blog and get it straight from the horse’s mouth. We recommend you do so, because the re-argument order goes into some detail as to what information the Court wants. Mr. Thomas provides a helpful explanation and commentary.

We presume that this time Justice Kavanaugh will participate in the re-argument, so the court will be up to full strength in the re-argument. For a copy of the full court order restoring The Knick case to the calendar go to https://www.supremecourt.gov/orders/courtorders/110218zr_bpm1.pdf

Lowball Watch — Texas

PRNewswire.com reports that when the State Of Texas took some 9500 square feet of land out of an auto salvage operation, it offered the owners $65,000. However, after trial, a Bell County jury brought in a verdict of $500,000. The taking involved moving of the owners’ driveway, which caused safety problems and accidents.

State of Texas v. Skyway Holdings LLC, No. 0015-04-083, filed in the Bell County Court of Law No. 3.

https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/owners-of-texas-business-win-500-000-jury-verdict-in-eminent-domain-dispute-300740408.html

A Question We Wish Hadn’t Been Asked

On October 2nd, our friend and fellow blogmeister, Robert Thomas, gave us a preview of the coming oral argument in Knick v. Township of Scott in which he posed the following question: Just How Badly Can SCOTUS Screw up Takings Law?

The oral arguments in Knick took place yesterday, and we now have an answer of sorts. There is no limit. Example: when the court granted cert, it did so on the question of whether the Williamson County case should be reconsidered to eliminate the requirement that the aggrieved land owner whose land has been taken without compensation, may not sue in federal court for this constitutional violation, but must instead sue in state court to “ripen” the case, 42 USC Sec 1983 to the contrary notwithstanding. So we started reading the transcript of the Knick oral argument, and what did we find? For openers, a question from the bench having to do with abstention which is in no way connected to the question presented, and which was dealt with by the court in Allegheny County v. Frank Mashuda Co. some time ago — a fact the questioner was obviously not acquainted with. Naturally, abstention was never raised or briefed below in the Knick case. And so it goes.

If you want to read the transcript in all its gory glory, go to https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2018/17-647_aplb.pdf (you can copy and paste this link in your browser)

There you will find such gems as Justice Breyer’s question asking whether SCOTUS should “let this sleeping dog lie,” overlooking the principle that the core function of the supreme court is to decide legal “sleeping dogs,” not perpetuate them. Besides, the owner’s counsel disposed of that idea by pointing out that Williamson County was not a sleeping dog but rather a wild dog running through the country. Still, in spite of our pessimism (of which more presently) we must rein in our feeling of impending doom and await the decision. For in spite of the court’s all too obvious misunderstanding of procedure in takings cases there is some likelihood that something in Williamson County will be overruled. And if that happens that would be progress — a step in the right direction. So let’s stay tuned. And pray.

Oh, and about that pessimism of ours, we were influenced years ago by the line of the late Bert Burgoyne, a great condemnation lawyer in Detroit, who once observed in our presence that “The problem with this field of law is that liberal judges don’t believe in private property, and conservative judges don’t believe in making the government pay.” As time goes on, we find the unpleasant truth embedded in that line to be more and more obvious. But even that neither explains nor justifies the intellectual and moral mess the courts have made of things law. Along with our co-author Michael M Berger, we just completed a law review article available in manuscript form on SSRN, entitled, The Nasty Brutish and Short Life of Agins v. City of Tiburon. We show there how SCOTUS so screwed up its opinion in Agins that it had to overrule it, not once but twice, thus suggesting that in this field of law, SCOTUS has a reverse Midas touch: just about everything it touches in this field turns to intellectual crap.

So read that transcript, and make up your own mind.

California Choo-Choo (Cont’d.)

We haven’t had much to say lately about California’s abuilding “bullet train” that in the sweet bye and bye will connect Los Angeles (and Orange County) with San Francisco. Now here is a dispatch from the LA Times, bringing us up to date on what’s going on. Worth a read.

http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-bullet-train-20180930-story.html# (copy and paste in your browser)

Bottom line: the folks in the northeast San Fernando Valley, along the train’s proposed path are furious. They shouted down the railroad types at a recent “town hall” style meeting, and in the inimitable phrasing of LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, if tomatoes had been available they would have been flying. Whether that railroad project will ever be completed, and if so, when remains questionable.