Nation's high court hears St. Croix County case (w/video)
Two side-by-side parcels of St. Croix County land were the focus of legal, practical and spirited debate Monday when the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justices peppered attorneys from different sides of the land-use argument with questions as they argued their respective points in a case that one attorney said could have wide-reaching implications.
"The Constitution means what it says when it prohibits uncompensated seizure of property," said John Groen, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation that represented the Murr family in court. "With this case, we seek to reaffirm that government can't define that mandate away through the use of creative regulatory maneuvers."
The central question before the high court was the constitutionality of state and local laws that effectively merged two riverfront properties in the town of Troy into one because of common ownership. The Murr family owns two adjoining parcels along the St. Croix River, one of which contains a cabin, the other a vacant patch of land.
The family sought to sell the vacant parcel in order to pay for upgrades to the cabin, but were prevented from doing so by St. Croix County.
"If anyone else in the world, other than the Murr siblings, owned (the vacant lot), that owner could sell or develop it," Groen said. "But the Murrs cannot."
Groen made it that far in his opening statement when he faced the first of many questions from justices probing hypothetical questions and pointed inquiries.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Groen that while the now-deceased parents who originally bought the land decades ago might not have been aware of a clause merging the two, the children who took ownership of the property "should have known."
"They could have said, 'No, I don't want two contiguous ones, Dad and Mom,'" Sotormayor said. "'I'll go buy the next-door lot from someone else.'"
Fellow Justice Elena Kagan touched on a similar point, saying whoever acquires land should know what they're getting into.
"I'm supposed to know the zoning regulations and when I buy a house, when I buy a piece of land, I'm buying subject to the pre-existing zoning regulations," she said.
After the hearing, Groen said it was clear the justices "reviewed the briefs and were ready to go."
"We're looking forward to a decision that hopefully will protect not just their rights, but the rights of Americans everywhere," he said during a news conference on the steps of the Supreme Court.
The court, which recesses at the end of June, could render its decision in the case by May.
Wisconsin Solicitor General Misha Tseytlin was one of three attorneys arguing in support of the government's action.
He explained the state's position as applying a test to see "if two lots have a link, a legal link under state law, then they are one parcel.
"If they have no legal link under state law, then they are completely separate," he said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy cast the state's argument as "wooden and as vulnerable a criticism" as Groen's.
Kennedy countered that the owners have investment-backed expectations.
In questioning attorney Richard Lazarus, who argued on behalf of St. Croix County, Justice Samuel Alito asked why a hardship exclusion didn't apply to the Murr family. Lazarus said the economic impact of the merger isn't significant "because the government has determined over decades that, in this situation, the economic impact isn't so great. There isn't ... hardship."
Alito asked Lazarus how preventing the sale of a property doesn't represent a hardship.
Valued together, the parcels are worth $698,000, Lazarus said. Separately, with a house on each, the properties are valued at $771,000, he said.
"Well, that's fine except that, in order to realize the value of the two lots put together, they would have to move away," Alito said.
Groen and joint property owner Donna Murr lauded Alito's point after the hearing, saying it raised issues of fairness.
"We have no intention of moving," Murr said, adding that it would defeat the purpose of standing up for their property rights.