Property Rights

All Property Rights Cases

A society cannot flourish and individuals cannot advance their private interests without individual rights to create and productively use property. PLF litigates in several areas of law to secure property rights as the foundation of liberty.

At PLF, we: secure the right to the productive and ordinary use of land; prevent governments from taking property; fight unconstitutional or unlawful regulatory requirements; promote balance in environmental laws; and stop unreasonable searches and seizures.

Waters of the United States

PLF's next Supreme Court case: fighting EPA's sweeping power grab over all U.S. waters.

In 2015, the EPA redefined waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act, expanding it to include essentially any tributary, no matter how small or remote; neighboring water bodies without any connection to a navigable water; and even isolated waters that are legally uncovered. Representing a coalition of landowners and small businesses, we challenged this illegal regulation. Our case has been consolidated with a number of other cases and will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on October 11.

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California Cattlemen’s Association v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Challenging government regulation in the dark

Representing the California Cattlemen’s Association, PLF filed a petition for writ of mandamus to have declared unlawful the department’s failure to conduct mandatory 5-year status reviews of 233 plant and animal species listed as “endangered” or “threatened” under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). By abdicating its duty to conduct these mandatory reviews, the state unlawfully failed to determine which species could be downlisted, where such downlisting would restore to landowners productive use of their property.

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Ross v. Acadian Seaplants Ltd.

Secure property rights are key to conservation efforts

Kenneth Ross owns coastal property on Cobscook Bay, Maine, on which rockweed grows in the intertidal area. Acadian Seaplants is licensed by the state to collect rockweed in areas “where seaweed may legally be taken.” Ross and other coastal owners sued to stop Acadian from harvesting rockweed on their property and Arcadian argues that the intertidal zone is held by the public and does not implicate private property rights. The Maine Supreme Court will determine whether the intertidal zone is privately owned property or whether to expand the public trust doctrine to cover it. On behalf of itself and the Property and Environment Research Center, PLF filed an amicus brief supporting private property rights.

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Desert Water Authority & Coachella Valley Water District v. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

A federal “reservation” of groundwater implicates takings liability for users exercising state water rights

The Agua Caliente tribe resides on a federal reservation that consists of a patchwork of parcels throughout California’s Coachella Valley. The tribe runs several commercial enterprises on the land, including casinos, hotels, and the like. Under California law, the tribe shares rights to the valley’s groundwater with other cities, water agencies, and individuals whose property overlies the water. Under the federal reservation of water rights doctrine, however, whenever the federal government withdraws land from the public domain (for an Indian reservation or national forest) it impliedly reserves the right to sufficient water to fulfill the purpose of the law withdrawal.

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United States v. Robertson

Montana man unjustly convicted of violating Clean Water Act

The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prosecuted Joseph Robertson for allegedly polluting waters of the United States as a result of a series of ponds he built on land above the small town of Basin, Montana. The prosecution turned on a definition of “waters of the United States” that included land 60 miles away from the nearest navigable river. A jury agreed with this definition, finding the ponds had a “significant nexus” to the river, and convicted Robertson. As amicus, PLF supports Robertson’s appeal, arguing that the court should apply a narrower definition of “waters of the United States” that would exclude the ponds.

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Benedetti v. County of Marin, California

Marin County adopts unconstitutional “forced farming” plan

Marin County’s new Land Use Plan requires landowners who currently use their land for agricultural purposes to remain “actively and directly engaged” in agriculture in perpetuity. This requirement is tied to building permits within the county’s agricultural zone. For PLF client Willie Benedetti, owner of Benedetti Farms and Willie Bird Turkeys, the mandate means he must choose between working forever or retiring and giving up his property. Benedetti is suing the county and the California Coastal Commission for this unconstitutional condition on his right to use his property.

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Personal Liberties

All Personal Liberties Cases

The liberty protected by the Constitution encompasses your right to be free in the enjoyment of all of your abilities in the pursuit of happiness, including the right to express yourself in thought and action, to pursue the occupation of your choice, to live where you want, and to pursue the best education for you and your children.

At PLF, we: vindicate freedom of speech and association; defend the right to earn a living; support freedom in education; and uphold equal protection of the law, including freedom from racial discrimination.

Oil States v. Greene’s Energy

The Executive Branch cannot deprive criminal defendants of their Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial

In 2011, the federal America Invents Act authorized the formation of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB). On the request of any third party, this panel of three Administrative Law Judges reviews the validity of one or more claims of a patent after the patent has been granted. Rather than raising patent invalidity as a defense, defendants are increasingly petitioning the PTAB in an effort to invalidate the patent at issue. The problem is that patents are private property rights that cannot be extinguished by an executive branch tribunal without a jury. The Supreme Court will decide whether this administrative tribunal is constitutional and PLF’s amicus brief argues that it is not.

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Shock v. City of Seattle, Washington

Seattle imposes arbitrary and unconstitutional tax on achievement

The Washington State Constitution prohibits the government from levying an income tax on targeted segments of the population; any income tax must be uniformly applied to all citizens. Nonetheless, Seattle enacted an income tax targeting those making in excess of $250,000 per year with a 2.25% tax rate, setting a 0% rate for everyone else. Promoted as a “wealth tax,” the City’s income tax punishes achievement and success, while threatening poor and middle class families who could later fall subject to new city, county, and state taxes if Seattle’s gambit succeeds. PLF represents Seattle residents in a lawsuit challenging the city’s knowing violation of the state constitution.

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Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission

Administrative concentration of judge-jury-executioner violates the Constitution

In 2012, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Raymond Lucia and his former investment company with violating federal securities laws and regulations. He was prosecuted in an administrative enforcement action overseen by an Administrative Law Judge employed by the SEC. The ALJ permanently barred Mr. Lucia from working as an investment adviser, revoked his company’s registration, and ordered $300,000 in “civil” penalties. PLF supports Mr. Lucia’s petition asking the Supreme Court to review his case, which implicates the fundamental constitutional issue of separation of powers.

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Hill v. Service Employees International Union

Liberating workers from compulsory unionism

The Illinois Public Labor Relations Act deems home healthcare and childcare providers who receive state subsidies to be “public employees” and requires a union to be the providers’ exclusive representative for bargaining with (e.g., lobbying) the state over regulations and policies related to the state care-services programs. Plaintiffs are providers alleging that the law violates their First Amendment rights to refrain from speaking or associating with the union. Lower courts upheld the law and the providers are petitioning for a writ of certiorari. PLF supports the petition because Americans cannot be compelled to speak or associate, or petition the government, against their wishes.

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Elster v. City of Seattle, Washington

Seattle’s politician enrichment tax forces property owners to subsidize private political speech and violates the First Amendment

Representing Seattle residents and property owners, PLF sued to overturn Seattle’s ordinance mandating public campaign financing. Under the city’s “democracy voucher” program, each Seattle resident receives four $25 vouchers to support eligible candidates for local political office. The money to fund the voucher program is taken from the city’s property owners via a dedicated levy. The lawsuit argues that these compelled subsidies violate the First Amendment right to refrain from speaking – or funding the speech of another person.

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Krause v. School Board of Indian River County, Florida

Florida student teaches school a lesson about free speech

In May of his junior year at Vero Beach High School, J.P. Krause was on the verge of winning the senior class president election when he gave an impromptu campaign speech in his AP U.S. History class, with his teacher’s permission. The 90-second humorous speech skewered some of the tropes of the Trump campaign – “my opponent will raise taxes!” – and contained other satirical remarks. Krause won the election, but then his principal disqualified him from taking office because his speech allegedly “humiliated” the second-place finisher, in violation of the district’s anti-harassment policy. When PLF, representing J.P. and his mother, informed the school district by letter that its actions violated the First Amendment, the district quickly reversed course and reinstated J.P. as senior class president.

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Procedural Guarantees

All Procedural Guarantees Cases

The Constitution establishes a separation of powers and express guarantees of due process. The fight for liberty is often a matter of ensuring that those who govern us do not exceed their constitutionally limited authority when enacting and enforcing the law.

At PLF, we: fight to end the modern administrative state, including limiting judicial deference to legislative and administrative judgments; restore separation of powers against improper delegation of authority to bureaucrats; define the limited scope of federal power under the Commerce Clause; revive the doctrine of enumerated powers; and ensure due process of law.

S.S. v. Colorado River Indian Tribes

Federal law deprives American Indian children of the “best interest of the child” standard in custody determinations

Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to address the problem of unjustified removal of Indian children from their parents by “nontribal public and private agencies” and their placement in “non-Indian foster and adoptive homes and institutions.” That concern is absent in a private action for termination of parental rights, a private dispute between birth parents in state-court custodial proceedings, involving no government entity. An Arizona court upheld ICWA’s application to this situation, holding that the law need only be rationally related to the government’s desire to protect Indian families and tribes.

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Center for Biological Diversity v. Zinke

Congress’s power exceeds administrative agencies

The Center for Biological Diversity, a group that favors expansive government control over the environment, sued Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke when Congress voted, pursuant to the Congressional Review Act, to rescind an Alaska wildlife refuge rule related to predator control. CBD argues that the CRA is an unconstitutional abridgment of executive power, and that regulations cannot be rescinded by Congress unless it also rewrites the underlying legislation. Representing itself as well as a coalition of individual Alaskans and related organizations, PLF seeks to intervene in support of the rule’s rescission and the constitutionality of the Congressional Review Act.

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American Municipal Power v. Environmental Protection Agency

Administrative agencies cannot demand perfection

Dozens of industrial companies and trade organizations challenged two Clean Air Act-related boiler regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): the Major Boilers Rule and the Area Boilers Rule. These rules allow uninjured citizens to sue regulated companies should their boilers malfunction. Lower courts upheld the rule and the boiler owners and operators petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Because the Clean Air Act requires regulated parties to avoid hazardous air pollution only where “achievable,” PLF supports the petition and argues that the text of the law exempts malfunctions from the stringent CAA requirements and its citizen suit provision.

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American Federation of Aviculture v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Thriving golden parakeets no longer need Endangered Species Act protection

Thanks to the efforts of private breeders, the golden parakeet is no longer threatened with extinction. Although the federal government acknowledges the bird’s tenfold increase in numbers, it has refused to comply with a law that requires it to make a final decision to delist or downlist the parakeet within 12 months of that finding. On behalf of a coalition of breeders and bird owners, the American Federation of Aviculture, PLF is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force it to comply with the law, reclassify the golden parakeet, and lift onerous restrictions that prevent breeders from selling to all other breeders.

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Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association v. Ross

President Obama’s abuse of Antiquities Act declares 5,000 square miles of ocean off-limits

The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the President to declare monuments on “land owned or controlled by the Federal government” to protect their historic or scientific value. On his way out of office, President Obama used this power to declare a 5,000 square mile area of the ocean to be the Northeast Canyons and Seamount Marine National Monument. Because the ocean is not “land owned or controlled by the Federal government,” PLF represents a coalition of fishing industry associations in a lawsuit challenging this abuse of the statute, which renders off-limits areas long used for sustainable commercial fishing near New England and the East Coast.

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People v. Rinehart

Golden State no more? California bans gold prospecting

California’s original Forty-Niners made their fortunes in gold with shovels and pans. Modern-day prospectors use a “suction dredge” – a specialized vacuum – to suck up sediment from streams, extract the gold, and then return the sediment to the stream. Federal law not only permits but encourages suction dredge mining, even on federal lands, while states retain the right to require permits and regulate environmental impacts. Unsatisfied with this balanced approach, California banned suction-dredge mining entirely. Brandon Rinehart, who profitably mined his Nugget Alley claim in the Plumas National Forest for years, was convicted of violating the ban over his defense that the ban is preempted by the federal Mining Act of 1872.

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