The Supreme Court Fails on Property Rights

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Will arbitrary state laws take precedent over a family’s right to do as they wish with its land?

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled against a Wisconsin family in a property rights case concerning a lakeside property. The 5-3 decision in favor of the State of Wisconsin has come at a crucial juncture, raising questions about the extent of state power over personal property.

The Murr family, who owns a cabin by the St. Croix River, wanted to sell an adjacent parcel of land that the family owned. However, Wisconsin’s property laws do not allow the sale of such adjacent parcels along a river unless they have an acre or more of developable land.

The Murr family then took the state of Wisconsin to court, arguing that by preventing the sale of the land, the state effectively took the family’s land and did not provide compensation in accordance with the market value for that piece of property. The family claimed that the actions of the state violated the constitutional rights granted by the Fifth Amendment.  

Members of the Murr family referred specifically to the takings clause, which prevents the government from seizing private property for public use without just compensation.

The State Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Wisconsin, said that the adjacent parcel of land and the Murr cabin can be considered to be one combined tract of land. Hence, it would be illegal for the Murrs to sell or develop the property unless the transaction involved the entire area.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito issued the dissenting opinion, while Justice Anthony Kennedy, along with those issuing the majority opinion, said that the state’s legislation did not prevent the family from using the property for economic purposes. Justice Kennedy wrote: “The Murrs can still make good use of both lots, and that the ordinance is a commonplace tool to preserve scenic areas, such as the Lower St. Croix River, for the benefit of landowners and the public alike.”

According to Justice Roberts, who disagreed with the ruling: “I would stick with our original approach: State law defines the boundaries of distinct parcels of land and those boundaries should determine the ‘private property’ at issue in regulatory takings cases.”

The decision has evoked mixed reactions, particularly among property owners and legal experts. Legal experts argued that the Murrs’ argument that they were protected by the Fifth Amendment is constitutionally valid. The Fifth Amendment clearly states that property owners must be compensated in the event that the state take control of their property. There is no exemption for property that is part of a larger parcel of land.

Using this logic, the Murrs technically should not have been denied compensation for the family’s property when the government prevented the sale. Thus, if the Murrs just owned the vacant plot, instead of the cabin, the state laws would not have prevented the family members from selling the land or developing it.

The recent ruling may affect how people register property, particularly when it concerns multiple, adjacent plots of land. The judgement shows that the government can take away private property without compensation if the property is part of a larger parcel of adjacent plots. This means that property owners may register their adjacent plots under the name of other family members in order to receive compensation in the case of government seizure.

The Supreme Court ruling may encourage state governments to deny compensation in such scenarios as the Murr case.

But the Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel hailed the verdict as: “a victory for the rule of law in Wisconsin and I’m glad our litigation has provided additional clarity for the citizens of our state.”

The Supreme Court decision could set a discomforting precedent. After this judgement, it would not be unreasonable to assume that state laws governing property could begin to take priority over constitutional guarantees of a respect for private property.

Arin Gerald studies mechanical engineering at Boston University. He writes about entrepreneurship, technology, and business.

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