Working Paper No. 08-53:
Taking Property Rights Seriously? The Supreme Court and the "Poor Relation" of Constitutional Law

Author(s):

Ilya Somin

Date Posted: August 2008

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Abstract:

Over the last twenty-five years, the Supreme Court has expanded protection for constitutional property rights. After decades of neglect, the Court has begun to take property rights seriously. At the same time, however, protection for property rights still falls far short of that enjoyed by most other individual rights. In case after case, the Court has expressed support for property rights, but stopped short of providing them with more than minimal protection. Despite the Court's own rhetoric to the contrary, property rights are still the "poor relation" of the Constitution.

Part I of this article analyzes the Court's recent property rights jurisprudence. It particularly focuses on the Court's decisions interpreting the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. I examine key decisions on public use, regulatory takings, remedies for takings clause violations, and access to federal courts for citizens who claim that their property rights have been violated. In most of these fields, recent court decisions have modestly expanded protection for property owners. However, the Court's decisions in each area fall far short of giving property rights the same degree of protection as that extended to most other individual rights.

Part II considers some of the standard rationales for denying judicial protection for property rights equal to that enjoyed by other constitutional rights. It addresses claims that property rights deserve little or no protection because they are already protected by the political process, because the courts lack expertise on "economic" issues, because judicial protection would benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, because the Courts should not enforce supposedly arbitrary common law property baselines, and because judicial protection for property rights might harm the environment. I suggest that each of these concerns is overstated, and that many apply with equal or greater force to the enforcement of other constitutional rights. Moreover, expanded judicial protection for property rights might actually benefit the poor more than the wealthy and may in some important cases promote environmental protection rather than diminish it.

Finally, Part III briefly considers the future of constitutional property rights. In the long run, judicial protection for property rights can only be effective if it is embraced by jurists from a broad portion of the political spectrum. Property rights probably will not get much more judicial solicitude than they enjoy today if support for them remains confined to judicial conservatives and libertarians. Outside the Court, some liberal jurists and activists have shown an increasing willingness to reconsider traditional post-New Deal hostility to property rights. The strong left of center reaction against the Court's decision in Kelo v. City of New London may point the way forward to cross-ideological cooperation on these issues.