Opinion analysis: In regulatory takings case, court announces a new test – SCOTUSblog (blog)

Posted Fri, June 23rd, 2017 9:31 pm by Miriam Seifter

Under the doctrine of regulatory takings, government regulation that goes “too far” in burdening property rights counts as a taking under the Fifth Amendment, entitling the owner to “just compensation.” In deciding such claims, courts often must deal with a tricky preliminary question: How should they define the bounds of the property that the government has allegedly taken? That question, often dubbed “the denominator problem,” could be outcome-determinative. For example, a regulatory burden on a small pond may seem minor if the property interest is defined as the developer’s much larger contiguous holdings, but severe if the property is defined as the pond itself. The court has long maintained that the denominator analysis must focus on the “parcel as a whole,” but that cryptic instruction has left litigants and lower courts at sea.

The parties in Murr v. Wisconsin offered the court three very different approaches to the denominator analysis. The case is interesting, and challenging, because each test would vindicate a slightly different view of the takings clause. As described in my earlier post, the Murrs argued that  a “merger” provision in state and local law — which barred them from selling separately their two undersized, riverfront lots — was a taking of the one lot they wished to sell. The Murrs urged a bright-line denominator test, hinging on the lot lines of the parcel alleged to be taken. This test would typically make it easier for landowners to assert takings. The state, arguing against a taking, offered a different bright-line test based on state law taken as a whole; here, the state’s merger provision would set the denominator as both lots together. The state’s test would offer the greatest deference to state prerogatives in defining property. Finally, the county (and in a similar vein, the United States as amicus) offered a multi-factor approach that would provide the least predictability, but the most flexibility to determine the interests of justice in any given case.

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