[guest post by JVW]
I guess we have never discussed the case of Geraldine Tyler, a widowed 94-year-old Hennepin County, Minnesota resident who had the county government seize and auction off her condominium for failure to pay taxes. Ms. Tyler, who had already transitioned into a nursing care facility, owed $2,300 in unpaid property tax, which the county bumped up to $15,000 when adding various penalties and interest charges accrued over a period of a few years. The condo was sold at auction for $40,000, but rather than keeping the $15,000 owed and refunding the remaining $25,000 to Ms. Tyler, Hennepin County kept the entire sum, claiming that state law permitted this as a consequence of forfeiture and that it did not count as an illegal taking.
Happily, exactly zero of the Supreme Court Justices saw things the same way that Hennepin County did. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority decision, ruling that the Fifth Amendment prohibition against “private property be[ing] taken for public use, without just compensation,” holding that “History and precedent dictate that, while the County had the power to sell Tyler’s home to recover the unpaid property taxes, it could not use the tax debt to confiscate more property than was due.” It drew a distinction between this case and Nelson v. New York City, a 1956 Supreme Court case in which the Warren Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that a bookkeeping error leading to the city seizing and selling two privately-held parcels over an unpaid water bill did not violate the Takings Clause. The Roberts court today pointed out that in Nelson the appellants were presented with the opportunity to recover excess fees from the sale but missed the deadline for doing so, whereas current Minnesota law presents no route for landholders to seek redress. The Chief Justice rejected the county’s claims that the elderly widow had abandoned her property, and pointed out that Minnesota’s forfeiture law is written so broadly that abandonment is not even required for the county to begin the process of seizure.
Unfortunately, the Court dodged the issue of whether or not Hennepin County’s actions fell afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against imposing excessive fines, with Justice Roberts asserting that once the Court had determined that Ms. Tyler had prevailed under the Takings Clause that there was no need for the Court to address the Excessive Fines Clause. Not so fast, came the response from a concurrence written by Justice Gorsuch and joined by Justice Jackson. The two disagreed that the Takings Clause rendered moot the need to visit the Excessive Fines Clause, given that the lower courts had misconstrued the application of that law [citations have been removed by me to improve reading flow]:
[E]ven a cursory review of the District Court’s excessive-fines analysis—which the Eighth Circuit adopted as “well-reasoned” reveals that it too contains mistakes future lower courts should not be quick to emulate.
First, the District Court concluded that the Minnesota tax-forfeiture scheme is not punitive because “its primary purpose” is “remedial” — aimed, in other words, at “compensat[ing] the government for lost revenues due to the nonpayment of taxes.” That primary-purpose test finds no support in our law. [. . .] It matters not whether the scheme has a remedial purpose, even a predominantly remedial purpose. So long as the law “cannot fairly be said solely to serve a remedial purpose,” the Excessive Fines Clause applies. [. . .]
Second, the District Court asserted that the Minnesota tax-forfeiture scheme cannot “be punitive because it actually confers a windfall on the delinquent taxpayer when the value of the property that is forfeited is less than the amount of taxes owed.” That observation may be factually true, but it is legally irrelevant. Some prisoners better themselves behind bars; some addicts credit court-ordered rehabilitation with saving their lives. But punishment remains punishment all the same. [. . .]
Third, the District Court appears to have inferred that the Minnesota scheme is not “punitive” because it does not turn on the “culpability” of the individual property owner. But while a focus on “culpability” can sometimes make a provision “look more like punishment,” this Court has never endorsed the converse view. [. . .]
The concurrence concludes — correctly, in my layman’s view — that the Constitution explicitly states that excessive fines are not allowed, and thus there should be no weaseling around this by government bodies. I hope that at some point the Court has occasion to revisit these wise words.
When Neil Gorsuch was appointed to the Court, super-smart legal observers suggested that he would bring with him a deep suspicion about the regulatory state and its unchecked abuses. Those of us who hoped this would indeed be his disposition ought to be happy with his concurrence, and very intrigued by the fact that Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson chose to join him. Perhaps that bodes well for a future left/right alliance against the unaccountable bureaucratic state.