WASHINGTON, DC – It is unconstitutional for government to keep more money from a property seizure sale than it needs to satisfy unpaid property tax bills, the Supreme court unanimously held on Thursday, adding that taxpayers must “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but no more.”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 9-0 opinion for the court. The case involved a 94-year-old grandmother who had moved out of her small condo, after which under Minnesota law the title on the condo was transferred to her local government when she went two years without paying property taxes on the home.
“Hennepin County, Minnesota, sold Geraldine Tyler’s home for $40,000 to satisfy a $15,000 tax bill,” Roberts began. “Instead of returning the remaining $25,000, the County kept it for itself. The question presented is whether this constituted a taking of property without just compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
The Takings Clause, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation. States have long imposed taxes on property. Such taxes are not themselves a taking, but are a mandated contribution from individuals . . . for the support of the government . . . for which they receive compensation in the protection which government affords. In collecting these taxes, the State may impose interest and late fees. It may also seize and sell property, including land, to recover the amount owed.
Under Minnesota law, government can keep the extra money in situations like this, giving part to local public schools. Hennepin County’s lawyers argued this is allowed by the Constitution.
“History and precedent say otherwise. The County had the power to sell Tyler’s home to recover the unpaid property taxes. But it could not use the toehold of the tax debt to confiscate more property than was due,” the court responded. “By doing so, it effected a classic taking in which the government directly appropriates private property for its own use. Tyler has stated a claim under the Takings Clause and is entitled to just compensation.”
The court’s unanimous opinion focused on the original public meaning of the Takings Clause, a method of constitutional interpretation called originalism that is a hallmark of judicial conservatives.
“In collecting taxes, the new Government of the United States could seize and sell only so much of a tract of land as may be necessary to satisfy the taxes due thereon,” Roberts wrote about federal law in the 1790s, noting that most states at the time the Constitution was adopted had similar laws, adding that this “consensus that a government could not take more property than it was owed held true through the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
“In collecting all other taxes, Minnesota protects the taxpayer’s right to surplus,” Roberts noted with disapproval regarding the inconsistency in that state’s tax laws. “If a taxpayer falls behind on her income tax and the State seizes and sells her property, any surplus proceeds shall be credited or refunded to the owner.”
“The State now makes an exception only for itself, and only for taxes on real property. But property rights cannot be so easily manipulated,” the majority continued. “Minnesota may not extinguish a property interest that it recognizes everywhere else to avoid paying just compensation when it is the one doing the taking.”
“The Takings Clause was designed to bar Government from forcing some people alone to bear public burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole,” Roberts went on, quoting prior cases. “A taxpayer who loses her $40,000 house to the State to fulfill a $15,000 tax debt has made a far greater contribution to the public fisc than she owed.”
“The taxpayer must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but no more,” he concluded.
Roberts also wrote for all the justices that because the court held that the county’s action violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, it was not necessary to decide the second issue in the case: whether this action would be an excessive financial penalty that violates the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment.
Although he joined Roberts’ opinion in full, Justice Neil Gorsuch added a concurring opinion explaining why the county’s action might also be an excessive fine. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined Gorsuch’s concurrence, making an interesting pairing of a libertarian justice with a liberal justice.
It is also noteworthy that the chief justice was able to get all nine justices to sign onto an opinion showcasing originalism in constitutional interpretation, and it will be worth watching to see how often this happens under the court’s new membership.
The case is Tyler v. Hennepin County, No. 22-166 in the Supreme Court of the United States.
Breitbart News senior legal contributor Ken Klukowski is a lawyer who served in the White House and Justice Department.
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