Damon W. Root writes at Reason:
The Supreme Court heard oral argument on Tuesday in a major case pitting property rights advocates against government regulators in a battle over the proper scope of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which requires the government to pay just compensation when it takes private property for a public use. Going by what the justices said in the courtroom that morning, the government regulators appear likely to prevail in a divided ruling.
At issue in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District is a decision by a Florida land-use agency to deny a building permit to a property owner because he refused to fund costly improvements to state-owned lands located several miles from his land. Had he agreed to fund this uncompensated upkeep of government property, the agency admitted in a pretrial stipulation, “the exact project [he] proposed would have been permitted.”
Attorney Paul Beard of the Pacific Legal Foundation, the national public-interest law firm representing property owner Coy Koontz Jr. in his challenge, told the justices that the St. Johns River Water Management District was guilty of imposing an “unconstitutional condition” on his client.
That argument found little traction with the Court’s liberals, however, who seemed leery of limiting the state’s regulatory flexibility. “Counsel, I’ve had a problem with your argument, okay?” declared Justice Sotomayor at the outset.
But the most surprising resistance came from conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who questioned whether Koontz had suffered any injury at all under the Takings Clause. “What has been taken?” Scalia asked Beard. “The permit’s been denied. I can’t see where there’s a taking here. Nothing’s been taken.”
Those words may spell doom for Koontz’s challenge. Scalia is the author of a key 1987 decision by the Supreme Court striking down a California regulatory agency’s imposition of a similarly problematic condition on a building permit. Until his comments in the courtroom on Tuesday morning, Scalia was seen as a solid vote in Koontz’s favor. Now he appears to be the single biggest threat. Without Scalia, Koontz is unlikely to reach the five-justice threshold needed to win. . . .