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EDITORIAL: Property rights prevail in important high court rulings

The Supreme Court on Thursday made clear that property rights remain a bedrock principle of a free nation, issuing two unanimous rulings repudiating efforts to erode constitutional protections for private property.

The first case involved a 94-year-old Minnesota woman who stopped paying her property taxes after she moved out of her condominium and into an assisted living facility. Hennepin County eventually seized her property and sold it at auction to collect the $15,000 in back taxes. But the county also pocketed the additional $25,000 generated by the $40,000 sale.

County attorneys argued that state law sanctioned the practice because it didn’t recognize surplus proceeds from such a sale as property interest. The court’s nine justices dismissed that perspective, however, noting that states can’t simply redefine what constitutes property in order to avoid the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause.

“The county had the power to sell Tyler’s home to recover the unpaid property taxes,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, but, he added, “it could not use the toehold of the tax debt to confiscate more property than was due.” He continued: “The taxpayer must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but no more.”

The decision is a victory for fairness and the Bill of Rights.

Ditto for the second ruling, this case a long-running dispute out of Idaho, where a couple has fought federal regulators for years over plans to build a home on their property in the state’s panhandle. The Environmental Protection Agency intervened, however, claiming the property contained wetlands that qualified as “navigable waters” under federal law and threatening them with large fines.

In 2012, the Supreme Court recognized their right to fight the agency in court but did not rule on the bureaucracy’s broad reading of the Clean Water Act. The case returned to the high court in 2022 after a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the government.

The justices took a different view. “The reach of the Clean Water Act is notoriously unclear,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote. “Any piece of land that is wet at least part of the year is in danger of being classified by EPA employees as wetlands covered by the act, and according to the federal government, if property owners begin to construct a home on a lot that the agency thinks possesses the requisite wetness, the property owners are at the agency’s mercy.”

All nine members of the court agreed that the EPA had no authority over the couple’s property, although they split 5-4 over a new test the ruling imposes to determine which wetlands are subject to federal law. Environmentalists who object to the narrower definition of wetlands should lobby Congress to clarify the statute. Meanwhile, the court’s decision lessens the risks of property owners being subjected to the whims of federal functionaries.

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