Kelo and Regulatory Takings:

A post by Mark Tushnet on a lawprofs' discussion list led me to wonder how the Kelo dissents' theory would deal with regulatory takings.

Two background items: First, under the Takings Clause, there are two kinds of takings, (1) "physical takings" in which the title to the property is actually taken, and (2) "regulatory takings," in which the owner keeps the formal title but loses the right to use the property in certain ways, the right to exclude people, the right to sell the property, the right to leave it in a will, or what have you. Generally speaking it takes a lot of interference with the owner's rights to make regulation qualify as a "regulatory taking" (at least outside the special context of regulations that require landowners to let people onto their property, which are on the way to being physical takings, and which I will set aside for purposes of this post). Still, the Court has held that, for instance, banning virtually all development on a parcel, and thus rendering its value nearly nil, would qualify as a taking even if the owner still owns the parcel. See Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (1992).

Conservatives are generally bigger fans of the regulatory takings doctrine than are liberals; Lucas, for instance, was written by Scalia, and joined by Rehnquist, O'Connor, Kennedy, and Thomas; libertarians tend to like it, too. Some liberals believe that regulatory takings should almost never be found, or even that the doctrine shouldn't exist, and that no regulation short of taking of title (or possibly interference with the right to exclude) should be considered a "taking."

Second, the debate in Kelo can be seen as pitting two different interpretations of "public use" in "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation": (1) "Public use" means "continuous public ownership or access," for instance if the government keeps the property or sells it to a common carrier (and access simply means the ability to go on the property, as for instance when the government takes land and sells it to a private railroad, but the railroad is required to let the public ride). (2) "Public use" means "public benefit," which may be derived by the government's selling it to a private developer whose development will (the government thinks) help the public.

So here's the question: Which reading of "public use" is most consistent with the generally conservative-libertarian notion that regulation can become a "regulatory taking"? When regulations deny you all right to use your land, for instance, and you claim that the government has "taken your property" -- in the sense of taken your right to exploit the property, which is part of your proprty rights -- "for public use," which meaning of "public use" would you be using?

It seems to me that the answer is not "public ownership or access." The government, after all, isn't taking the property so that the public can own it or access it. Nor is it taking it so that some private third parties can own it or access it. The only person who owns it or can access it is still you. Under the "continuous ownership or access" model, the regulation is neither a taking for public use nor a taking for private use. It sounds like it's not a taking at all, and you're thus entitled to no compensation.

But the "public benefit" model fits regulatory takings well. If the government stops you from developing your parcel in order to serve public environmental or esthetic goals, then it's taking your right to exploit the property in order to provide a public benefit, and thus you're entitled to compensation. Lucas in fact took this very view: Such regulations should be seen as takings because they "carry with them a heightened risk that private property is being pressed into some form of public service" (emphasis added).

So it seems to me that if the regulatory takings theory is sound, and regulations that make land nearly worthless should be treated as similar to physical takings, "public use" in the Takings Clause needs to be read as "public benefit." The question then becomes: Is it proper to read "public use" as "public benefit" for one kind of takings, and "continuous public ownership or access" for another?

Perhaps the answer is yes: Maybe the regulatory takings theory isn't really a textual interpretation of the Takings Clause, but rather a necessary backstop developed in order to avoid end-runs around the Clause; since its role is functional rather than textual, then some of the textual limitations on the Clause may be dispensed with. Or perhaps the answer is that the critics of regulatory takings doctrine (mostly liberal, I think) are right, and regulation should never be seen as a taking (again, perhaps unless it interferes with the right to exclude the public), even if it strips the owner of nearly all the value of his land.

Or perhaps there's some other explanation still. But it seems to me that if one does support the regulatory takings doctrine as part of the broader takings doctrine, and one thinks that it should be read consistently with the text of the clause -- which is to say that the text of the clause should be read consistently for regulatory takings and possessory takings -- then it seems to me that the Kelo majority's "public benefit" model is stronger than the dissents' "continuous public ownership or access" model.