Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Important Property Rights Case

As Damon Root notes, The Supreme Court recently refused to consider Ilagan v. Ungacta, an important Public Use Clause property rights case. I wrote an amicus brief on behalf of numerous public interest organizations and law professors urging the Court to take Ilagan and use it as an opportunity to clear up major ambiguities left over after Kelo v. New London, and also as a vehicle for reversing Kelo itself. I discussed the significance of the case in this post:

Ilagan v. Ungacta is a fairly egregious case where land was condemned for the purpose of benefiting a powerful private party, in this case the then-mayor of Agana, Guam, and his family (the new owners of the condemned property). In Kelo v. City of New London, one of the most widely opposed decisions in Supreme Court history, the Court ruled that the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment allows condemnations for virtually any “public purpose,” including transferring property from one private owner to another in hopes of stimulating greater “economic development.” But the Court also noted that government may not “take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit.” Unfortunately, neither Kelo nor other Supreme Court decisions have made clear what it means for a taking to be “pretextual.”

[L]ower federal courts and state supreme courts have come up with at least five different approaches to deciding what counts as a pretextual taking….

Ilagan is a great case for the Court to clarify the meaning of pretext because it includes all four possible indicators of pretext identified by various lower court decisions: dubious motives, a highly skewed distribution of benefits, lack of careful planning, and a major private beneficiary whose identity was obvious in advance of the taking…

[T]his case is also a good opportunity for the Court to consider overruling Kelo…. [T]he case for overruling Kelo easily qualifies under the Court’s traditional standards for overruling a constitutional decision: Among other things, the ruling was based on poor reasoning, it has been widely criticized, and its recent nature ensures that it has not yet created much in the way of reliance interests. Most strikingly, the Court should reconsider Kelo because retired Justice John Paul Stevens, the author of the Kelo majority opinion, has publicly admitted that his reasoning was based in part on what he calls an “embarrassing to admit” mistake.

With rare exceptions, the odds against the Supreme Court accepting any particular case are usually long. For that reason, this outcome is not surprising, though it is still disappointing. But we are still going to continue our efforts to persuade the Court to both clarify the meaning of “pretext” and overrule Kelo.

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