WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday said Florida need not compensate landowners who lost exclusive access to their beachfront property under the state's beach-widening program.
In a blow to private property advocates nationwide, eight justices agreed that the beach-widening in Walton County didn't trigger the Fifth Amendment's requirement that the government must pay compensation for the "taking" of private property.
The decision is a victory for California, Washington and some two dozen other states that had sided with Florida.
The court fractured, though, over the potentially trickier question of whether courts themselves could be held financially liable for decisions that amount to the taking of property. A 4-4 split on this question Thursday means it will likely return another day.
"If a legislature or a court declares that what was once an established right of private property no longer exists, it has taken that property, no less than if the state had physically appropriated it or destroyed its value by regulation," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote on behalf of himself and three other justices.
Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito want to expand private property owners' ability to claim compensation under the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause. They believe this should include compensation for judicial decisions.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer reasoned it was premature to address the controversial issue of "judicial takings" in the case.
"When faced with difficult constitutional questions, we should confine ourselves to deciding only what is necessary to the disposition of the immediate case," Breyer cautioned.
The missing ninth member of the Supreme Court, retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, didn't participate in the case, creating a tie.
Stevens didn't publicly explain his recusal decision, but he owns an oceanfront apartment in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and spends much of his time there.
The case called Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection has its roots in Florida's longstanding practice of battling erosion along the Gulf and Atlantic beaches by depositing fresh sand along the coast.
Walton County and the city of Destin wanted to restore 6.9 miles of beach that had been eroded by several hurricanes. The project would add 75 feet of dry sand.
A group of Walton County homeowners contended that the proposed beach renourishment project would create a strip of public land between their homes and the Gulf of Mexico. They warned in court records that could lead to an array of vendors peddling kayaks, "inflatable boat rides, personal watercraft, and parasails."
Florida countered that beach restoration provides private owners with benefits like erosion and storm surge protection.
"Florida long ago made it a major state priority to protect and restore critically eroded beaches through legislation that is extraordinarily protective of private property," Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar added in a legal filing.
The Florida Supreme Court upheld the state beach-widening project, finding Florida has a "constitutional duty to protect Florida's beaches." The landowners, in turn, then argued that the Florida Supreme Court's decision itself amounted to a taking of their property.
This question of a judicial taking proved to be the most interesting and divisive one for the Supreme Court. Scalia devoted much of his 29-page opinion arguing that courts could be held liable for a taking of property. He devoted relatively little attention to the question of whether, in this case, Florida had taken the property by dumping the new sand and changing the beach.
"There was no preexisting, established right (to the land) under the circumstances produced by Florida's Beach and Shore Presentation Act," Scalia wrote, in the part of the decision joined by all other justices participating in the case.
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