Court Backs Property Rights for a Change

Ten years ago Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court catapulted the arcane issue of ???eminent domain??? into public consciousness by ruling that cities may take private property and give it to corporations ??? provided displaced owners are paid ???just compensation.??? People were so shocked that it sparked a backlash, with most states eventually putting limits on the practice.

The ghosts of the Kelo decision must have hovered around the court???s Washington, D.C., building on Monday, as justices issued two of their most significant property-rights-related decisions since 2005. Unlike Kelo, they ruled on behalf of property owners in both of these California-related matters.

In Horne v. Department of Agriculture, the court ruled 8-1 in a case that sounds narrow but has broad implications. It involved a New Deal-era program designed to ???maintain stable markets??? for agricultural products such as raisins by forcing farmers to hand over a portion of their crop ??? sometimes nearly half of it ??? to the federal government without payment.

As the court explained, the feds would then dispose of the raisins as they saw fit, by selling them in foreign countries, using them in school-lunch programs or giving them to charity. The government would then deduct its own expenses and, if there???s any money left, return it to the farmers.

Supporters claim it helps farmers by reducing supply and driving up prices of raisins, but two Fresno-area raisin growers refused entry to the government-sent trucks. They were fined $695,000, but have been challenging the program in the courts for years. The farmers, Marvin and Laura Horne, say they are the victims of an unconstitutional taking.

This seems like another arcane battle ??? over an antiquated government program that involves raisin markets. But the key question is widely significant: Does the Fifth Amendment???s prohibition on takings without compensation apply only to land and buildings ??? or does it apply to all types of property?

The court was unequivocal: ???The Fifth Amendment applies to personal property as well as real property. The government has a categorical duty to pay just compensation when it takes your car, just as when it takes your home.??? That???s true even if ??? and it???s a big ???if??? in this case ??? the program provided some general economic benefit to farmers.

When the case was being argued, one of the court???s most conservative members expressed concern about the Soviet nature of the program. ???Central planning was thought to work very well in 1937,??? said Justice Antonin Scalia, according to an April report in the Los Angeles Times. ???Russia tried it for a long time.??? Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, although other liberal-leaning justices dissented on limited parts of the ruling. (Likewise, the court???s liberals sided with the government in Kelo.)

But in Monday???s other ruling ??? City of Los Angeles v. Patel ??? Sotomayor and the court???s liberals took the pro-property-rights view while conservatives, including Scalia, defended a government approach that also has a Soviet whiff about it.

Los Angeles officials require innkeepers to record detailed information about guests (license plate numbers, payment information, the number of guests, room number, etc.), especially if they pay in cash or rent the room for a short time. That information must be turned over to any police officer who demands it ??? immediately, for any reason, any time of the day or night, and without court order. Operators who refuse face arrest. Officials argue this power is needed to battle prostitution and other crimes common at motels.

But writing for the 5-4 majority, Sotomayor ruled the law unconstitutional unless it allows the hotelier a chance to challenge the police request prior to compliance. Otherwise, ???the ordinance creates an intolerable risk that searches authorized by it will exceed statutory limits, or be used as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests.??? She noted cops could go to the hotel 10 times a day ??? and innkeepers can do nothing but comply.

This was a good week at the court for property rights ??? and a reminder that neither side of the political aisle has a monopoly on protecting them.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Contact him at