Patterico's Pontifications

5/25/2023

Supreme Court Unanimously Rules for Elderly Widow against Rapacious County

Filed under: General — JVW @ 12:57 pm



[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.

– JVW

16 Responses to “Supreme Court Unanimously Rules for Elderly Widow against Rapacious County”

  1. The Supremes punted on how much she should get back:

    During the oral argument, the justices struggled with the issue of whether Tyler should automatically get all of surplus value from the sale of her property at auction, or whether she should instead get the difference between the amount she owed the government and the value of the property at the time it was foreclosed for tax delinquency. The Court chose not to resolve this issue, which is now left to the lower courts.

    Rip Murdock (d2a2a8)

  2. Great ruling.

    More of this please.

    It’s why, it’s super important that a GOP controls the Whitehouse and Senate, despite whatever ya’ll may feel about the person.

    whembly (d116f3)

  3. And on the same day, they slapped down the EPA for its expansive view of “what is a wetland.”

    The Supreme Court on Thursday established a more stringent test to determine whether the Clean Water Act applies to a wetland. The ruling was a setback for the Environmental Protection Agency and a victory for an Idaho couple, Michael and Chantell Sackett, who have been battling with the federal government for over 15 years in their efforts to build a house on an empty lot near a large lake.

    The Sacketts’ legal battle began shortly after they began backfilling their property to prepare the lot, which is about 300 feet from Priest Lake, for construction back in 2007. The Sacketts received a notice from the EPA to stop work because their lot contains wetlands protected by the CWA, which bars the discharge of pollutants, including rocks and sand, into “navigable waters.” The CWA defines navigable waters as “waters of the United States.” The EPA reasoned that the wetlands on the Sacketts’ lot fed into a non-navigable creek that then led to Priest Lake.

    In agreeing that the Sacketts’ lot is a wetland, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit applied the test outlined by Justice Anthony Kennedy in Rapanos v. United States: whether there is a “significant nexus” between the wetlands and waters that are covered by the CWA, and whether the wetlands “significantly affect” the quality of those waters.

    On Thursday the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit’s ruling. Instead, Justice Samuel Alito explained, courts should apply a more stringent test, outlined by four justices (including Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justice Clarence Thomas) in Rapanos, in which the CWA applies to a particular wetland only if it blends or flows into a neighboring water that is a channel for interstate commerce.

    https://www.scotusblog.com/2023/05/supreme-court-curtails-clean-water-act/

    Kevin M (213cd6)

  4. intrigued by the fact that Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson chose to join him

    I see Jackson as disliking injustices perpetrated on powerless individuals by the powerful, even if that includes the State.

    Kevin M (213cd6)

  5. In the EPA case (with a fractured opinion), Gorsuch was still on point:

    Justice Clarence Thomas penned a separate concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch. Thomas contended that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Sacketts’ case “curbs a serious expansion of federal authority that has simultaneously degraded States’ authority and diverted the Federal Government from its important role as guarantor of the Nation’s great commercial highways into something resembling ‘a local zoning board.’” But, Thomas cautioned, Congress limited federal power under the CWA, and the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should “respect that decision.”

    Kevin M (213cd6)

  6. I see Jackson as disliking injustices perpetrated on powerless individuals by the powerful, even if that includes the State.

    That’s a start! I’m not going to quibble if she has to become a libertarian before she becomes a conservative.

    JVW (5d3098)

  7. I see it as limited. If the appellant had been a landlord, she might have seen it differently.

    Kevin M (213cd6)

  8. If the appellant had been a landlord, she might have seen it differently.

    Sadly, you’re probably correct.

    JVW (706bce)

  9. @whembly@2 that makes no sense. The ruling was all judges, regardless of who appointed them. And the concurrence includes one of each. If it proved anything (it doesn’t) it would prove that it didn’t matter who appointed the judges, you still can get good rulings.

    Nic (896fdf)

  10. Solid ruling. When a bank forecloses on a private mortgage, if they receive more in a Trustee’s Sale than what is owed, the excess goes back to the ex-borrower. It should be the same for a county treasurer.

    Paul Montagu (8f0dc7)

  11. Nobody owns real estate in America. At most they own a “fee”, an abstract collection of rights, on a parcel of it.

    In its way, the Supreme Court’s decision in this case is as radical as Roe v. Wade. There is no reason in jurisprudence, dating back and prior to 1789, why the entire fee cannot be forfeited to the sovereign for failure to pay the taxes due on it.

    nk (c7a1b0)

  12. If the appellant had been a landlord, she might have seen it differently.

    Sadly, you’re probably correct.

    What makes you all think she is not a landlord herself?

    One reason I cannot form a full-curl sneer towards CRT (Critical Race Theory) is that I am too aware of the preconceptions and misconceptions people everywhere operate under. Including myself.

    nk (c7a1b0)

  13. @9

    @whembly@2 that makes no sense. The ruling was all judges, regardless of who appointed them. And the concurrence includes one of each. If it proved anything (it doesn’t) it would prove that it didn’t matter who appointed the judges, you still can get good rulings.

    Nic (896fdf) — 5/25/2023 @ 5:56 pm

    Nic, while the ruling was a 9-0 verdict, the rationale and precedent moving forward was 5-4.

    It absolutely matters who appointed these Justices and should be a factor in whom you’re voting for in the general imo.

    whembly (d116f3)

  14. Nobody owns real estate in America. At most they own a “fee”, an abstract collection of rights, on a parcel of it.

    >John Locke has left the chat.

    JVW (459359)

  15. I think it was the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Code which first realized the concept of allodial title (true ownership of land) in the West.

    nk (c7a1b0)

  16. @Whembly@13 “The rationale and precedent moving forward was 5-4” IANAL, so I certainly could be overlooking something, but I can’t find that in the opinions or anything on the case. Could you link to where you found it (or just explain where it is if it’s written plainly somewhere or how you reached the conclusion based on this specific case if it isn’t?)

    Nic (896fdf)


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