Written by PLF client Mike Murr:
On March 20, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in the case of Murr v. Wisconsin. My three siblings and I are the petitioners in this case. We are middle-class citizens born and raised in South St. Paul. We are a public high school teacher, a retired public employee, a financial planner and a manager of a drive-in movie theater.
In 1960, our parents purchased a parcel in a 66-lot residential development in Wisconsin along the St. Croix River and built a modest recreational cabin. Three years later, they bought an adjacent parcel as an investment for the future. Before they passed away, my parents conveyed the properties to their children in separate transactions in 1994 and 1995.
We now want to sell the vacant parcel to pay the costs of renovating the 50-year-old family cabin. However, the government has imposed a regulation that defines our 1.25 acre lot as “substandard.” The regulation’s grandfather clause allows anyone who owned vacant parcels prior to enactment to sell or develop their parcels. Anyone but the Murrs, that is. We are precluded from selling or developing the parcel because we also own the adjacent parcel.
This brings us to the issue before SCOTUS of whether two adjacent parcels, which are legally distinct but commonly owned, must be combined for purposes of regulatory takings.
I am the public high school teacher referenced above with 47 years’ experience teaching courses, including Advanced Placement U.S. Government. One lesson was enhanced by standing in front of the class and saying, “Oh, by the way, your teacher is the petitioner in a case that is going to the U.S. Supreme Court.” Some students interpreted that statement to mean getting to the Supreme Court is a common occurrence. Actually, the Supreme Court accepts less than 1 percent of the cases submitted each year.
When teaching my students about the federal judiciary, I have always said that even an average citizen can get his or her issues heard by SCOTUS. It turns out I have been right. Another lesson validated by this experience is how the Supreme Court is the great equalizer. Four siblings before the Supreme Court have the same standing as the largest corporation, the state of Wisconsin or the U.S. government. They are legally equal.
The cost of taking a case to the Supreme Court can be daunting. By pooling our family resources we self-funded the significant legal costs and attorney fees during the many years of challenges through the Wisconsin courts. Once Wisconsin appeals were exhausted, we considered going to federal court. The problem was our attorney had become a judge, and our resources were strained.
This leads to another civics lesson. Public interest law firms are willing to take up a cause if the issue is important. Our case is now being sponsored by the Pacific Legal Foundation. In the same way that the American Civil Liberties Union will represent people whose freedoms have been violated, the Pacific Legal Foundation defends core constitutional liberties, with a special emphasis on all Americans’ property rights. We have excellent legal representation. They decided on a legal strategy, wrote the writ of certiorari, mobilized other resources and will present oral arguments before the court at no cost to the Murrs. We are eternally grateful to PLF and their donors.
Finally, this has been a humbling experience because of the magnitude of the case, which has gone far beyond the Murr siblings and their two properties. Many other interests will be impacted by the outcome of this case, which could establish a national precedent. Yahoo News reported our case was one of the “10 Cases to Watch” as determined by the National Constitution Center. Nine states submitted an amicus brief in support of our position. They are concerned about the property rights of the states against the federal government. The National Association of Home Builders expressed the concern of developers who might decide not to purchase adjacent properties if this would negatively impact their property rights.
Regardless of the case outcome, this experience will have enhanced not only my personal life, but also the lessons I bring to my students that the federal judicial system exists to ensure that we are all equal under the law.
Published by The Pioneer Press