The National Pulse

Can the Government Take Your Property? Why the “Takings Clause” Matters

This article is part of series focusing on Lens of Liberty, a project of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.

In a Liberty Minute entitled “Take That!” Helen Krieble warns listeners to be wary of government officials trying to take their private property away:

A Massachusetts couple are second generation owners of a small motel which they own free and clear. But the federal government decided it wanted the property and showed up with law enforcement agents to announce that they were going to confiscate it. No compensation was offered and no public interest identified. They were just going to sell the land for the money.

But the government ran into a buzzsaw with this couple and landed in court. Even the judge there looked through the lens of liberty and told the federal government it had no such authority.

The Constitution prohibits government from taking private property without just compensation. Even so, it happens everyday. Sometimes, even the Constitution must be defended by ordinary citizens like us.

A similar case made national news last month when the Supreme Court decided Murr v. Wisconsin. The property owners in this story were not as fortunate as the Massachusetts motel owners, however, and ultimately lost their legal battle in the country’s highest court.

After their parents’ deaths, the Murr siblings of Troy, Wis., inherited two adjacent waterfront properties on the banks of the St. Croix River. Years later, when they decided they wanted to sell one of the lots, they were told by the St. Croix County Board of Adjustment that they could not do so because their county’s zoning commission had merged the two pieces of property together some years earlier.

Although the government did not directly take the Murrs’ property, it still denied them just compensation for depriving them of the former value and use of their land by merging two waterfront lots into one. By doing so, the government seemed to be violating the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Confident that the St. Croix County government’s actions were unconstitutional, the Murr siblings appealed their case all the way up to the Supreme Court.

However, the Supreme Court ruled against the siblings in a 5-3 decision. Writing the Opinion of the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy essentially told the siblings it was their tough luck that the county had merged their properties without their consent. Because the government did not directly take the Murrs’ property, but instead only prevented them from selling it, the Court majority argued that the government was not required to pay any compensation.

On account of this decision, government officials are now allowed to take advantage of citizens by enacting zoning changes without regard for how they may harm property owners. This opens the door to a whole host of private property violations now justified by Supreme Court precedent.

As Krieble says, the justices should have looked through the lens of liberty in this case as well. The government should have no such authority to deprive ordinary citizens of the value of their legally owned property.

Terry Schilling

Terry Schilling is executive director of the American Principles Project.