The Supreme Court Misses the Mark in Murr v. Wisconsin – It’s High Time to Reconcile Regulatory and Physical Takings Law

COMMENTARY Courts

The Supreme Court Misses the Mark in Murr v. Wisconsin – It’s High Time to Reconcile Regulatory and Physical Takings Law

Jun 26th, 2017 7 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Alden Abbott

Deputy Director of Edwin Meese III Centerfor Legal and Judicial Studies

Alden Abbott serves as Deputy Director of Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
  1. Background: The Murr v. Wisconsin Case

On June 23, in a 5-3 decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined; Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld  the Wisconsin State Court of Appeals’ ruling that two waterfront lots should be treated as a single unit in a “regulatory takings” case.  The Murrs are siblings who inherited two adjacent waterfront properties from their parents, and they wanted to sell one of the lots and develop the other.  Unfortunately for the Murrs, the lots had been merged under local zoning regulations, and the local county board of assessments denied the Murrs’ request for a zoning variance to allow their plan to proceed.

The Murrs challenged this in state court, arguing that the state had effectively taken their second property by depriving them of practically all use without paying just compensation, as required by the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.  Affirming a lower state court, the Wisconsin Appeals Court held that the takings analysis properly focused on the two lots together and that, using that framework, the merger regulations did not effectuate a taking.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted the Murrs’ writ of certiorari.  The Supreme Court found that in determining what the relevant unit of property is, courts must ask whether the owner would have a reasonable expectation to believe the property would be treated as a single or separate units.  The Court held that in regulatory takings assessments courts must give substantial weight to how state and local law treat the property, evaluate the property’s physical characteristics, and assess the property’s value under the challenged regulation.  The majority concluded that with regard to the Murrs’ property, there was a valid merger under state law, the terrain and shape of the lots made it clear that the merged lot’s use might be limited, and the second lot brought prospective value to the first. Thus, the lots should be treated as one parcel and they did not suffer a compensable taking, since the Murrs were not deprived of all economically beneficial use of the property.

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented (joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito), noting that the Takings Clause protects private property rights “as state law created and defines them” and the majority’s “malleable definition of ‘private property’…undermines that protection.”  Thus, “[s]tate law defines the boundaries of distinct parcels of land, and those boundaries should determine the ‘private property’ at issue in regulatory takings cases.  Whether a regulation effects a taking of that property is a separate question, one in which common ownership of adjacent property may be taken into account.”

The always thoughtful Justice Thomas penned a separate dissent, suggesting that the Court should reconsider its regulatory takings jurisprudence to see “whether it can be grounded in the original public meaning” of the relevant constitutional provisions.

  1. The Supreme Court Should Reject the Confusing Dichotomy Between Physical and Regulatory Takings and Apply a Simpler Uniform Standard, One that Better Protects the Property Interests Safeguarded by the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause

Unfortunately, far from clarifying regulatory takings analysis, the Murr decision further muddies the doctrinal waters in this area.  Justice Kennedy’s majority decision creates a new inherently ambiguous balancing test that gives substantial leeway to localities to adjust regulatory demarcations and property line divisions without paying compensation to harmed property owners.

Although the three-Justice dissent sets forth a more full-throated paean to property rights, it does little to clarify how to determine when a regulatory taking occurs.  Instead, it approvingly cites prior less than helpful Supreme Court pronouncements on the topic:

Governments can infringe private property interests for public use not only through   [direct] appropriations, but through regulations as well. . . .  Our regulatory takings decisions . . .  have recognized that, “while property may be regulated to a certain extent, if regulation goes too far it will be recognized as a taking.”  This rule strikes a balance between property owners’ rights and the government’s authority to advance the common good. Owners can rest assured that they will be compensated for particularly onerous regulatory actions, while governments maintain the freedom to adjust the benefits and burdens of property ownership without incurring crippling costs from each alteration. . . .  For the vast array of regulations that [do not deny all economically beneficial or productive use of land and thus automatically constitute a taking,] . . . a flexible approach is more fitting.  The factors to consider are wide ranging, and include the economic impact of the regulation, the owner’s investment-backed expectations, and the character of the government action.  The ultimate question is whether the government’s imposition on a property has forced the owner “to bear public burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole.” 

Such a weighing of “wide-ranging factors” to determine whether or not a taking has occurred is inherently subjective and prone to manipulation by local authorities.  It enables them to marshal a list of Court-approved phrases to explain why a regulation does not go “too far” and take property – even though it may substantially destroy property value.

What is missing from the opinions in Murr is the recognition that any substantial net reduction in the value of a piece of property (subdivided or not) takes a certain property interest.  It is black letter law that there is not a single undivided property right inhering in an item of property, but, rather, multiple property interests – a “bundle of sticks” – that can be taken in whole or in part.  Under current Supreme Court jurisprudence, if the government directly seizes (or physically occupies) a particular stick, compensation is owed for the reduction in overall property value stemming from that stick’s loss.  This is the case of a physical “per se” taking.  But if the government instead enacts a rule preventing that stick from being sold or embellished by the bundle’s owner (think of the Murrs’ plan to sell one plot and develop the other), the owner likewise suffers similar reduced overall property value due to restrictions on the stick.  Under existing Supreme Court case law, however, the loss in value in the second case, unlike the first case, may well not be compensable, because the owner has not been deprived “of all beneficial use” of the overall property.  Supreme Court case law indicates that a taking may exist in the second case, depending upon a regulation’s impact, its interference in investment-backed expectations, and the character of its actions.  As a practical matter, this infelicitous, indeterminate balancing test very seldom results in a taking being found.  As a result, government is incentivized to invade property rights by using regulations, rather than physical appropriations, thereby undermining the Taking Clause’s requirement that “private property [not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

There is a far better way to deal with the problem of government regulatory intrusions on private property rights, one that recognizes that regulatory deprivation of any stick in the bundle should be compensable.  Professor Richard Epstein, distinguished property law scholar extraordinaire, points the way in his very recent article posted at the NYU Journal of Law and Liberty blog 18 days before Murr was handed down.  While Professor Epstein’s brilliant essay merits a close read, his key points are as follows:

I have used the occasion of yet another takings case before the Supreme Court, Murr v. Wisconsin, to comment on the structure of the takings law as it is, and as it ought to be.  On the former count, it is quite clear that the entire structure of the modern law of physical and regulatory takings tends to fixate on the ratio of the value of property rights taken to the value of the full bundle of rights before the regulation was put into place.  But there is no explanation as to why this ratio has any significance in light of the standard rule in physical-takings cases that the fair market value of the rights taken affords the correct measure of compensation so long as the taking is for a public use when no police-power justification is available.  Within this peculiar framework, it is a mistake to make the right of compensation for the loss of development rights under the Wisconsin ordinance turn on the technicalities of the chain of title to a particular plot.  This seems a uniquely inappropriate reason to deny compensation for the loss of development rights.

Any analysis of Murr is inherently messy, and it leaves open the endless challenge of reconciling this case with a wide range of other cases that cannot decide whether two contiguous parcels held by different titles can be a collective denominator in takings cases.  [But] . . . the muddle and confusion of the current law is largely obviated by the simple proposition that, prima facie, the more the government takes, the more it pays.  That rule applies to the outright taking of any given parcel of land or to the taking of a divided interest in property. In all of these cases, the shifts in what is taken do not create odd and indefensible discontinuities, but only raise valuation questions as to the size of the loss, taking into account any return benefits that a property owner may receive when the taking is part of some comprehensive scheme. But those issues are routinely encountered in all physical-takings cases. In all instances, police-power justifications, tied closely to the law of nuisance, may be invoked, and in cases of comprehensive regulation, courts must be alert to determine whether the scheme that takes rights away also affords compensation in-kind from the parallel restrictions on others in the scheme. Under this view, the full range of divided interests, be they air rights, mineral rights, liens, covenants, or easements, are fully compensable. The untenable discontinuities under current doctrine disappear.

Let us hope that in the future, the Supreme Court will take to heart Justice Thomas’s recommendation that the Court return to first principles, and, in so doing, seriously consider the economically and jurisprudentially sophisticated analysis adumbrated in Professor Epstein’s inspired essay.  

This piece originally appeared in Truth on the Market

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