The Supreme Court sent down two opinions on Thursday, May 25, with profound implications for American liberty. In Tyler v. Hennepin County, the Court ruled a woman could sue authorities who seized and sold her home to satisfy a delinquent property tax: The government wanted to keep all the money from the sale, even the amount over the delinquency. Meanwhile, in Sackett v. EPA, the Court issued a massive shot across the bow of executive overreach and freed a landowner from the yoke of Environmental Protection Agency aggression.
EPA Muddies the Waters
Federal law (Clean Water Act) gives the EPA authority to regulate the “waters of the United States.” The Sacketts bought land in Idaho; they were preparing to build a home on it and moved dirt around. Then the EPA said they had to stop development and put things back or suffer penalties “of over $40,000 per day.” Why? As described by the Court, “[t]he EPA classified the wetlands on the Sacketts’ lot as ‘waters of the United States’ because they were near a ditch that fed into a creek, which fed into Priest Lake, a navigable, intrastate lake.”
Justice Samuel Alito authored the opinion of the Court in this case, overturning the agency’s use of a significant-nexus test to establish jurisdiction. “By the EPA’s own admission, nearly all waters and wetlands are potentially susceptible to regulation under this test,” he wrote, “putting a staggering array of landowners at risk of criminal prosecution for such mundane activities as moving dirt.” This opinion was unanimous as to the outcome (Sackett’s win), but not regarding what the agency’s new test should be. Justices Clarence Thomas, Elena Kagan, and Brett Kavanaugh all wrote separate concurrences joined by various colleagues.
Still, this decision was a massive pushback against the regulatory state, and it was greeted with commensurate scorn by statists. Never mind the 9-0 vote on the outcome, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) responded to the ruling in the Sackett case by tweeting:
“This MAGA Supreme Court is continuing to erode our country’s environmental laws. Make no mistake—this ruling will mean more polluted water, and more destruction of wetlands. We’ll keep fighting to protect our waters.”
There is a shortcut to understanding the impact of a Supreme Court opinion – the more hate Chuck Schumer throws at it, the better it tends to be for liberty.
Local Government, Local Thieves
Tyler v. Hennepin County saw another unanimous decision against government overreach. Geraldine Tyler had lived alone in her Minneapolis condo until, as the Supreme Court’s opinion explained, “her family decided she would be safer in a senior community, so they moved her to one in 2010.” The problem was that no one continued paying property tax on the condo after she moved. “By 2015, it had accumulated about $2300 in unpaid taxes and $13,000 in interest and penalties.” Leaving aside the staggering interest and penalty amount, the condo sold for $40,000. What did the county do with the surplus? According to the Court, it “kept the remaining $25,000 for its own use.”
If you think that sounds unconstitutional, you’re in good company – with all nine Supreme Court justices. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Court’s opinion and said: “The taxpayer must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but no more.” The Court ruled that property owners have a Fifth Amendment right to sue over this kind of taking by governments. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a concurrence, adding that the fine itself would fail on a challenge based on the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fine prohibition. Justice Ketanji Jackson signed on to Gorsuch’s opinion, which said:
“Economic penalties imposed to deter willful noncompliance with the law are fines by any other name. And the Constitution has something to say about them: They cannot be excessive.”
Justices are still considering cases on affirmative action, voting rights, and the right to discriminate against certain customers. Rulings on all argued cases are expected to be announced by the end of June.
All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Liberty Nation.
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