If you are unlucky enough to have your property taken through excessive government regulation you may find yourself in a catch-22. Your federally guaranteed constitutional rights have been violated if the authorities have refused to pay just compensation; however, under a 1985 decision, Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, there is no way to vindicate your federal rights in federal court. This is because the Williamson County court requires that takings claims must be brought in state court. But, as NFIB Small Business Legal Center recently argued in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, the time has come to reconsider Williamson County.
Our amicus brief urges the Court to take a case out of Michigan. The case is Wayside Church v. Van Buren County, and the facts are outrageous. Van Buren County took several properties because the owners had fallen behind on their taxes; however, after selling the properties and satisfying the outstanding tax deficiencies, the County pocketed the remainder (thousands and thousands of dollars) as a windfall. In other words, the County took far more than what was owed. And we think there is no doubt that these taxpayers should have received the difference between what was actually owed and the equity they had built in their respective properties. But of course, Williamson County reared its ugly head, and the owners were told that they could not even raise their claims in federal court.
In no other context are individuals told that they must pursue claims for constitutional violations with the very same state governments that have violated their rights. Moreover, the Reconstruction Congress enacted law—Section 1983—expressly for the purpose of allowing these sorts of claims to be heard in federal court. And, since 1985, subsequent developments—and a great deal of scholarship—have called into question all of the fundamental assumptions on which Williamson County stood. As such, we think its only proper for the Court to reconsider the absurd notion that a landowner must seek compensation in state courts, which may be hostile or indifferent to private property rights secured by the federal Constitution.
For more commentary, check-out Cato Institute’s summary of the Wayside Church case here.