June 25, 2013 United States Supreme Court opinions

Koontz v St. John’s River Water Management District

Koontz applied for a permit to develop land with proposed environmental offsets. District indicated that it would approve the application if Koontz undertook more expensive mitigation or did work on district land many miles away. Koontz sued claiming an uncompensated taking. The Florida state trial court agreed, but, it was ultimately reversed by the Florida Supreme Court on the ground that the application was denied for failure to make concessions and only money was demanded. The Court, 5-4, reversed. The majority held that consistent with the unconstitutional conditions doctrine the form of government action is irrelevant to whether an unconstitutional taking has occurred. Here, Florida could avoid the Fifth Amendment merely by labeling the unconstitutional condition a condition precedent to a permit which would effectively kill Court precedent in the area. The majority declined to rule on the substance of the claim holding the claim was a state law claim and Florida courts should resolve those issues on remand. The majority also held that money exactions are subject to the takings clause particularly in the land use context as the possibility for extortionate behavior is great and where, as here, the demand is related to a particular interest in property. The majority repeated that property taxes and user fees are not takings and that practically speaking the difference between those and an effort to get money form an applicant to avoid paying compensation for an easement is clear. The dissent argued that demands for money to not implicate the takings clause as they do not take anything. Thus, assuming a demand to spend money was made here, it did not require Koontz to do anything. It was therefore different from a demand to grant an easement or otherwise actually take property. Noting that state courts have been all over the map on what is a fee and what is a tax, the dissent forecast confusion and burdens on localities trying to apply the newly announced rule to their permitting regimes. The dissent also argued the case should also have been affirmed because no demand was made and no money was paid. Thus, the takings clause was not triggered. The dissent also lamented that base on today’s decision the only rational choice for localities tis to stop communicating with developers and merely grant or deny applications as crushing litigation costs will result if a locality tries to negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement.

Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl

Couple petitioned to adopt Baby Girl. Girl’s biological father, a member of the Cherokee tribe, objected. The South Carolina family court ruled in father’s favor and the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed. The Court, 5-4, reversed and remanded. It held that under the Indian Child Welfare Act, 25 USC 1901-1963, father was not entitled to the protections of 1912(f) as he never had legal or physical custody of Girl and indeed had abandoned her and refused to support her. Thus, there was no custody to continue as under the protection of 1912(f). The majority reasoned this was consistent with the plain language of the statute and congressional intent to prevent removal of Indian children from Indian parents with custody. The majority held that farther was not entitled to the protections of 1912(d) as the remedial services mandated there only apply to families which exist and here by abandoning girl, father had already broken up any family unit. The majority reasoned that this is consistent with the plain language, purpose and placement of the provision and best effectuates congressional intent. The majority finally held that the preferences for Indian adoptive placement in 1915 do not apply where there is only one potential adoptive parent or couple in the case as here. The majority stated its concern that following the South Carolina Supreme Court’s approach would make covered children vulnerable as potential parents would shy away from the uncertainty. Justice Thomas added a concurrence arguing that Congress has no authority over adoptions that involve Indian children and thus the majority adoption of one plausible interpretation which avoids the need to rule on the power issue is the correct choice and he joined the majority opinion on that basis. Justice Breyer added a concurrence noting that the statute was silent on the issue involved, that the Court should only decide this case and leave other issues for later and wondering if an absentee father could be foisted into a child’s life by the relevant tribe. Justice Scalia joined Justice Sotomayor’s dissent but filed his own to argue that there is no reason that “continued custody” must mean existing or past custody as opposed to further custody and that the majority opinion demeans the common law right of parents to raise their children. Justice Sotomayor dissented arguing that, taken as a whole, the Act protects biological parental relationships with their children and those relationships can only be terminated if the requirements of the Act are followed. Thus, 1912(d) and (f) apply with full force as lack of remedial services and lack of proof that the placement would not cause Baby Girl harm mean the adoption could not proceed. The dissent argued the majority’s opinion will now prevent fathers who want a relationship with their child but are prevented by the mother or other circumstances from doing so will now lack the protection Congress intended for them to have. The dissent argued the Act adopted a robust set of rights for unwed biological Indian fathers in recognition of the strong interest in biological parents and children in forming a family unit and that this choice was consistent with the policies of 15 states. The dissent also argued that the majority’s emphasis on the interests of adoptive children misses the point of the act which is to maintain Indian families. It also noted that distinctions based on tribal membership are not discriminatory and there is thus no equal protection problem here.

Shelby County, Alabama v Holder

County sued for a declaration the Section 4(b) and 5 of the voting rights Act are unconstitutional. The district court denied their petition and  a divided panel of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia affirmed. The Court, 5-4, reversed as to Section 4(b). The majority held that imposing preclearance requirements on states and selected counties is only permissible if current turnout rates and tests an devices which have discriminatory impacts exist. Because the formula for determining which jurisdictions must have changes in their voting laws and practices precleared by the federal government is based on evidence from the 1960s and 70s, the formula fails to demonstrate a current need for the covered jurisdictions to remain covered and it thus unconstitutional as a violation of equal state sovereignty. Thus Section 4(b) is unconstitutional. The majority emphasized sections 2 and 5 of the Act are not affected by this decision. Justice Thomas added a concurrence arguing section 5 is also unconstitutional because the racial disparities which justified in 1966 no longer exist. The dissent argued that Congress has strong powers to protect the right of minority voters to vote and the test is whether or not the means chosen is reasonable. The dissent argued that based on the record developed in the 2006 reauthorization process, there are still barriers in the covered states to equal participation by minority groups. Additionally, Congress made the reasonable conclusion that coverage needed to continue in order to prevent backsliding. The dissent noted that covered jurisdiction still commit more than half the judicially found violations of the Section 2 of the Act and Congress has allowed covered jurisdictions to obtain judicial permission to leave the section 5 requirements while also allowing the government to obtain judicial orders imposing Section 5 on jurisdictions not including in Section 4(b) who violate the 15th Amendment.  The dissent also argued that County is not eligible to bring a facial challenge as it has been found to engage in racially discriminatory voting practices in the recent past and the Act requires unconstitutional applications to be severed form constitutionally allowed applications. The dissent rejected the equal sovereignty ground arguing it is limited to admission of new states and nothing else. The dissent finally argued that Congress could reasonably keep the coverage formula as it captured the problem jurisdictions and there was thus no need for change.


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