Horne fails to squeeze the juice out of Williamson County ripeness doctrine

June 11, 2013 | By J. DAVID BREEMER

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Horne v. Department of Agriculture, a case in which California raisin growers sued the Department of Agriculture in federal district court after the Department fined them for refusing to hand over a portion of their raisins to the federal government without compensation. In the federal court, the raisin growers claimed that the requirement that they give the government their raisins or pay a fine for not doing so was unconstitutional and invalid because it amounted to a taking of their property. When the Ninth Circuit heard the case, it concluded that the Supreme Court’s takings ripeness precedent prevented the district court from hearing the takings arguments and instead gave the growers only one potential avenue for relief, a suit for damages in the Court of Federal Claims–an entirely different court based in Washington, D.C. The case thus went up to the Supreme Court on this jurisdictional issue; i.e., whether the growers could sue the federal government for a taking immediately in federal district court once they were fined or whether they had to abandon their federal litigation and start all over again with a new suit in a different, specialized court.

The case drew attention from property rights lawyers and groups mostly because of its potential impact on one particular Supreme Court ripeness decision: Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson County. The Williamson County opinion states that when property owners assert that a state or local government has taken their property, they must generally seek just compensation for a taking in state court before suing in federal court. It also confirms a prior Supreme Court decision holding that when property owners sue the federal government for a taking, they cannot seek to invalidate a federal action in district court as a taking, but must seek just compensation in the Court of Federal Claims. This ripeness doctrine is one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions of the modern era; in the 2005 case of San Remo Hotel v. City and County of San Francisco, four Supreme Court justices went so far as to conclude that Williamson County was mistaken and should be abandoned. In this context, some court watchers hoped that the Supreme Court’s decision to review Horne would result in an opinion further undermining Williamson County ‘s ripeness doctrine.

Alas, it was not to be. The Horne opinion dutifully recites Williamson County’ s ripeness requirements without negative comment, and even conspicuously fails to note the doubts  about the doctrine expressed in San Remo. In a footnote, the Horne Court did observe that Williamson County is not a bar to a court’s jurisdiction, but is instead a prudential ripeness principle, an observation which gives courts some flexibility in applying the doctrine. Some commentators have suggested that this footnote identifies a new weakness in Williamson County, and thus potentially gives property owners a new basis for persuading federal courts to hear their takings claims.  This is, unfortunately, a bit of a reach. In truth, the Horne footnote is nothing more than a re-statement of existing law, and can do nothing more than maintain the status quo in the battle to limit Williamson County.

The prudential character of Williamson County was, after all, recognized by the Court as long ago as 1997.  And in a 2010 beach takings case, the Court more clearly confirmed that Williamson County ripeness rules are not a barrier to federal jurisdiction because they derive from prudential ripeness concepts. This pre-Horne characterization of the case did not escape the notice of property owners or their advocates. In fact, in the past few years, property owners have increasingly pointed to Williamson County‘s prudential nature as a basis for federal courts to decline to apply its ripeness rules. Successful, early examples of this tactic can be found in Adam Brothers Farming Inc.v. County of Santa Barbara and Acorn Land LLC v. Baltimore County, both of which were litigated on the property owners’ side by attorneys with Pacific Legal Foundation.

Horne does not change any of this. That is, it does not give property owners any additional ammunition for the Williamson County fight or open a new front. Nor does it insulate Williamson County from current or future challenges.  It simply leaves the battle lines where they have been since San RemoWilliamson County continues to exist as a seriously flawed ripeness precedent that can be waived by federal courts, due to its prudential nature, in some circumstances. For further reform of Williamson County, the Court will have to take up another takings case