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It’s Chief Justice Roberts’ Property World, We Just Live In It



We spoke on the second panel of the day at the 2022 Brigham-Kanner Property Rights Conference at the William and Mary Law School. The subject of our panels — which included Professors David Callies, Tim Mulvaney, and Dave Owen — was “Reshaping the Framework Protecting Property Under the Roberts Court.

Here’s a rough transcript of our remarks.


President Reveley, Professor Butler, distinguished Brigham-Kanner Prizewinners (present and future), mentors, colleagues, family and friends: thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

The story goes that when asked what it was like to be a part of the “Rat Pack,*” that Dean Martin responded “It’s Frank’s world, we just live in it.”


When I first heard the title of this portion of the program and the discussion of how and if the Roberts Court is reshaping property, my first reaction was a paraphrase of Dean Martin’s quip, with a legal twist:

It’s the Chief Justice’s property world; we just live in it.

Now let me explain. Our session asks if the Roberts Court is reshaping the framework of property protections, and if so how.

I can answer the first part with a definitive yes. The Roberts Court is reshaping the way we look at property, and specifically the term “private property” as employed in the Fifth Amendment.

Summed up, this is property’s “moment” at the Supreme Court.


And to me, there’s no question that it is the Chief who is, in Reggie Jackson’s immortal words, “the straw that stirs the drink.”

The “how” takes us to a series of decisions by the Court, most of which have seen the Chief take the lead in producing the opinion. Or at least providing the intellectual steam and the vision of how the Court views this thing called “private property” and its role in the pantheon of civil and human rights. In addition to Cedar Point, how many of the Court’s property or property-related opinions has he authored? Knick. Penn East. Horne II. Murr dissent. Winter. This recent per curiam sure reads a lot like he wrote it, too. Those opinions he didn’t author he played a big part in: the fifth vote in Koontzpresumably employing his role as Chief to organize unanimous or nearly unanimous decisions in Arkansas Game, Horne I, Brandt, Hawkes, and Sackett; and joining in very pro-property rights pluralities when there wasn’t a majority. (Did we miss any?)

So let’s take a look at the vibe of these decisions, starting with the most recent, Cedar Point Nursery v. California. And before we go further, let me proudly disclose my bias, as my own law firm – the same law firm as our Brigham-Kanner honoree, Pacific Legal Foundation – represented the property owner in Cedar Point.

There, the narrowest framing of the issue would ask whether there’s any difference between a temporary and permanent physical invasion. The Court has already told us that a permanent physical occupation is considered a taking, which shifts the burden to the government to either pay up, or back off.


And on that, let another hat tip to my former law partners Diane Hastert and Charlie Bocken who bucked more than a century of seemingly contrary law and started us down this path with 1979’s Kaiser Aetna v United States in a decision authored by then-Associate Justice Rehnquist (who, the following Term, would be the boss of a young Harvard Law grad named John Roberts).

In Kaiser Aetna, the majority concluded that just because a navigable waterway might be subject to federal regulatory authority didn’t mean that along with the regulatory authority came the public. If those regulations invited the public to “come on in, the water’s fine,” that’s such a dramatically different nature than mere regulation, and triggered the obligation to pay compensation. Or, in that case, decide whether the price of regulation was worth the cost. It was not, and the federal government chose to back off instead of pay, leaving the owner to bar the public if it chose.

Kaiser Aetna re-introduced us to the centrality of the “right to exclude” (another hat tip to Prizewinner Tom Merrill) and the notion that permanent invasions triggered the Fifth Amendment calculus. Leaving open the natural question: what if the invasion isn’t “permanent?”

Let’s set that aside for a moment, and get to the issue the Kaiser Aetna Court was able to avoid dealing with: what might be the more difficult question of the source of the right to exclude and other property rights deemed to be within the scope of how private property is defined in the Fifth Amendment (and Kaiser Aetna was a pure Fifth Amendment case, as the federal government was the party pushing the closed gates open).

I say this was an easier question in Kaiser Aetna because there, the Court noted that under Hawaii law – all the way back to the Kingdom days – these type of waterways were not considered “navigable” in the sense we do (even though many of them were, in fact, navigable. Thus, the majority reasoned, if state law recognizes an admittedly unusual right to exclude, who are we as mere federal judges to say otherwise? On that, they were on firm footing, going at least as far back as Justice Holmes in another case out of Hawaii, Damon v. Hawaii, in which he noted in the most Holmesian language that if local law recognizes portions of the ocean as private property, then so does the Fifth Amendment.


So let’s flash forward to Cedar Point which resolved that permanent vs temporary question, holding that permanence is not the sine qua non of takings. But the Court did have to grapple with the issue of where the property interest the owner asserted was taken actually came from. (Or maybe “who” defines property.) We all know that state law is the touchstone of private property and states have a lot of latitude about how to define and redefine it. As the Court noted in Cedar Point, “[a]s a general matter, it is true that the property rights protected by the Takings Clause are creatures of state law.”

But, as we all know, a state’s notion of property cannot go below the floor of the Fifth Amendment, and the Court has never countenanced state law defining property in a way that eliminates “fundamental elements” of “central importance to property ownership.” Indeed, the Cedar Point majority rejected California’s argument that state regulations limited the fundamental right to exclude). The Court held that core property right such as the right to exclude are not “empty formalities, subject to modification at the government’s pleasure.”

For that notion, I think there’s no better statement of the issue than Justice Thurgood Marshall in PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins, where he emphasized that property includes a “normative dimension” insulated by the Fifth Amendment from state tampering. These fundamental rights protect individual autonomy:

I do not understand the Court to suggest that rights of property are to be defined solely by state law, or that there is no federal constitutional barrier to the abrogation of common law rights by Congress or a state government. The constitutional terms “life, liberty, and property” do not derive their meaning solely from the provisions of positive law. They have a normative dimension as well, establishing a sphere of private autonomy which government is bound to respect.

Justice Marshall continued:

Quite serious constitutional questions might be raised if a legislature attempted to abolish certain categories of common-law rights in some general way. Indeed, our cases demonstrate that there are limits on governmental authority to abolish “core” common-law rights, including rights against trespass, at least without a compelling showing of necessity or a provision for a reasonable alternative remedy.

For more, see the Chief’s dissenting opinion in Murr v Wisconsin, where he argued that Justice Kennedy’s multifactor test (surprise!) for defining the denominator property in takings isn’t so much defined by state law as the baseline, but turns on a multiplicity of factors (what one advocate in that case called Penn Central squared).

The Chief argued that the question of property should always start with state law and traditional understandings (this is my property line) but doesn’t always end there. And that gets me to my point here: when trying to predict what the Court might do about property and how it might analyze it, the best place to start isn’t with “new property,” but with old property. So dirt lawyers and scholars, dust off your Lord Coke, your Blackstone, and your Grotius. State law goes only so far, and cannot dominate the conversation and shape an owner’s expectations (if expectations are even part of the calculus).


Let me suggest what some of those “normative” dimensions of property might qualify as “core” would look like. What, in addition of the right to exclude, are fundamental to the notion of property?

Before I sign off, let me wrap up by recognizing the people who attend this Conference. The William and Mary law students who take advantage of this great event and spend the day (or more!) with us, seeing how the things they are leaning in class are applied in the world.The alums of our Land Use course, and our Eminent Domain and Property Rights course. It was heartening to see that many lawyers who first attended this Conference as students continue to come as lawyers. The emerging property law scholars who may be the next generation of B-K Prizewinners.

And finally, to Jim Burling for his hard earned, well-deserved recognition. This Conference is the Cooperstown of Dirt Law, and I’m thrilled to be here sharing in the celebration. And if it isn’t out of place, this student (and yes, I continue to consider myself a law student — a 38L at this point) would like to honor one of his teachers. I do consider Jim Burling to be one of those legal mentors who shaped my own views of property and law.

I anticipate many years of continued studying at your side, Jim. Because I might modify my opening thoughts, I should say that it isn’t the Chief Justice’s property world we live in: it’s Jim Burling’s Property World.

Congratulations, Jim.


*We refer to the Rat Pack in its Vegas iteration, not the original RP formed by Humphrey Bogart.


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