Ruling Important for California Water Agencies
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The U. S. Supreme Court waded into a thorny constitutional thicket by considering whether the courts, like other branches of government, are subject to the limitations of the Takings Clause of the U. S. Constitution when they change the definition of property. Under the Takings Clause, the government must pay compensation to a property owner when it “takes” his property for public use, as when it exercises the power of eminent domain. The Supreme Court has held that the Takings Clause also applies – and therefore a property owner is entitled to compensation – when the state excessively regulates his property, although the courts have not clearly defined how far the states can go in regulating property.
The question raised in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection was whether the Takings Clause also applies when a state court restricts a property owner’s rights by changing the definition of property – that is, whether there can be a judicial taking of property. This is a very important issue in California and other states, particularly in the field of water rights regulation. The California Supreme Court held in 1983 in the famous Mono Lake case that the public trust doctrine applies to water rights, and therefore water users are subject to public trust limitations. If a judicial taking can occur, water users in California may be able to challenge the application of public trust principles to their rights, or at least seek compensation for the loss of their rights.
The Supreme Court in Stop the Beach Renourishment unanimously decided Thursday, 8-0, that no taking had occurred because the Florida Supreme Court had not changed the definition of property. The Florida Supreme Court had held that the State of Florida owned the beach lands that suddenly emerged when the State filled beach erosions caused by hurricanes, and that the lands did not belong to the owners of beachfront property. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Florida Supreme Court’s decision was supported by the State’s “background principles of property law,” and thus the Florida Court had not changed the definition of property. (Justice Stevens, who owns Florida beachfront property, did not participate in the case.)
In California, the state courts have in many cases defined property, and in some cases redefined it. In the water rights field, for example, the California Supreme Court many years ago adopted the doctrine of riparian water rights, and held that riparian rights have priority over appropriative rights – and thus limited the rights of appropriative users. More recently, the California Supreme Court held in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court that the public trust doctrine applies to, and therefore restricts, water rights. If a judicial taking can occur, water users in California whose rights are restricted by court decisions defining their rights would have the right to challenge the court decisions and seek compensation for the loss of their rights. Thus, the judicial taking doctrine has enormous significance for California and other states.