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Justices side with government in property rights case

26 June 2017

Attorney John Groen makes his legal case for the Murr family.

The Supreme Court has ruled against a Wisconsin family in a property rights case that makes it easier for government officials to restrict development in environmentally sensitive areas.

Members of the family argued that decision blocked their ability to sell a vacant lot bequeathed to four siblings from their deceased parents. More than 100 cities and counties across the USA have similar "merger" restrictions that treat two adjacent properties as one if they have the same owner. He said the property as a whole remains valuable and the family could not claim they expected to sell or develop the lots separately given regulations that existed before they acquired the lots. President Donald Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a leading supporter of such "school choice" plans.The most notable of three immigration-related cases in which rulings are due on Monday is a dispute over whether immigrants detained by the USA government for more than six months while deportation proceedings unfold should be able to request their release.

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"My brothers and sister and I are certainly disappointed in today's ruling", said Donna Murr, one of the siblings who brought the lawsuit.

The Murr family's lawyers have cited another landmark Supreme Court decision, Lucas v.

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"We will continue the fight for property owners and for the integrity of the constitutional right against uncompensated government takings", he continued. Nine states plus industry groups and legal foundations filed friend-of-the-court briefs opposing Wisconsin's position on the matter. "Instead, the court should have asked whether, under general state law principles, Lots E and F are legally distinct parcels of land".

"It declined to limit the parcel in an artificial manner or to limit what constitutes property interests to those established by state laws". It might take time for such an opinion to be written - and perhaps responded to by someone in the majority. The lots had merged into one when they transferred from the plaintiffs' parents to their children in the mid-1990s, well after the development regulations had been in place. Roberts said the court should have relied on state property lines to define the relevant parcel of land rather than consider outside factors.

The state had effectively merged the properties into one parcel when it enacted the zoning restriction, and it was "a legitimate exercise of the government's police power", Kennedy said. For the Murrs, that analysis concluded they owned a single parcel that retained plenty of value. "Our case would have never made it to the Supreme Court had PLF not recognized its importance and significance for all property owners and the rights of all Americans". The foundation took the Murrs' case for free to seek legal clarity in such "parcel as a whole" takings claims. They planned to use the proceeds from an empty lot to pay for improvements on a cabin that sits on adjacent land.

"As I see it, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals was wrong to apply a takings-specific definition of the property at issue", wrote Chief Justice Roberts in his dissent. "Whether a regulation effects a taking of that property is a separate question, one in which common ownership of adjacent property may be taken into account", he wrote. "Considering petitioners' property as a whole, the state court was correct to conclude that petitioners can not establish a compensable taking in these circumstances".

He would let state law define the boundaries of parcels in all but the most exceptional circumstances.