“It was an honor to argue this important property rights case before the nation’s highest court.”
Those were the words of John Groen, PLF’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, as he addressed a press conference in front of the Supreme Court on the morning of March 20, after completing oral argument in PLF’s landmark case of Murr v. Wisconsin and St. Croix County.
He had good reason to feel honored — as do you, our supporters, who have made our vital work for the Murr family possible. It is truly an honor to be on the front lines in the defense of fundamental rights — in this case, the property rights that undergird all other freedoms!
As you know, in Murr, we are defending a core constitutional principle: Government isn’t allowed to steal; it must provide “just compensation” when it takes property for public use.
That didn’t happen for the Murr family. Government officials robbed them of a family legacy — a parcel along the St. Croix River that their late parents bought decades ago as a family investment.
Our clients are four sons and daughters of the late William and Dorothy Murr, who now share ownership of that vacant investment lot. They want to sell it, to pay for repairs to the family’s beloved cabin, which sits on an adjacent parcel that their parents purchased years earlier.
But they have learned that they are “owners” of the investment parcel only in name, thanks to harsh regulatory restrictions enacted after it was purchased. Although they must pay property taxes, they have lost crucial rights: They can’t build on the investment lot, and they can’t sell it.
Government can’t be allowed to drill loopholes in the Takings Clause
Moreover, government officials have resorted to creativity to avoid the mandate of the Takings Clause that they pay for their taking of the investment property. Regulators are arbitrarily treating both of the family’s parcels – the investment lot and the cabin lot — as if they were a single, unified parcel, even though they were bought at different times and are legally distinct.
A “grandfather clause” in the restrictions makes the scenario even more outrageous. The ban on selling or making productive use of the investment parcel extends only to the Murrs — simply because they also own the cabin parcel next to it. If other people owned the vacant parcel, the restrictions wouldn’t apply to them. At oral argument, Chief Justice John Roberts homed in on this Kafkaesque situation, branding it “a little quirky.” Indeed, it’s a jarring double standard.
Oral argument was lively. John Groen forcefully drove home the unfairness of the Murrs’ predicament and the injustice of the government arbitrarily combining their two lots to avoid having to pay the Murrs for denying them the use of their investment parcel.
Defending the integrity of everyone’s property rights
“This case is about seeking justice for the Murr family,” as Groen put it in his statement after the hearing. “But it is also about ensuring the integrity of everyone’s constitutionally protected property rights. When regulators deny people all the use of their property, government cannot escape liability for a taking. It cannot be allowed to evade its responsibility, under the Fifth Amendment, to provide just compensation. The Constitution means what it says when it prohibits uncompensated seizure of property. With this case, we seek to reaffirm that government can’t define that mandate away through the use of creative regulatory maneuvers.”
Later that day, at a Heritage Foundation reception for PLF, former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III offered praise for our work in this case – and our record of nine consecutive Supreme Court victories for liberty and limited government. “We have been very fortunate over the years to have a number of these receptions after the Supreme Court arguments that Pacific Legal Foundation has made,” he told a large assembly of PLF fans from the D.C. area and beyond. “I hope the Murr case will follow the other cases, because you’ve had a remarkable string of wins and, as a result, the law is a lot better off. The results have really strengthened the property rights of the people of the United States, and overall freedoms. So we’re really pleased to have this association with Pacific Legal Foundation.”
The Murr family offers thanks to PLF – and to you, our donors
A decision in Murr is expected by June, and there is the potential that newly installed Justice Neil Gorsuch could add his vote if necessary to break a tie.
While everyone is awaiting the outcome, the Murr family is offering their thanks to PLF.
“This case is huge because the principles at stake have implications for all Americans,” said Donna Murr, one of the siblings who fought through the courts for years to get to this point. “Wisconsin regulators have taken away our ability to sell or develop the vacant parcel, while claiming we do not deserve compensation because we already have the cabin on our other parcel.
“Thanks to PLF, the Supreme Court heard how dangerous and unconstitutional this scheme is.
“More than 20 members of the Murr clan gathered in Washington to be there,” she continued. “We only wish our parents could have lived to see this day. We know they are with us in spirit. And we know we have the support of so many Americans who believe our property rights should never be sacrificed to overreaching government.
“The Murrs want to thank everyone at PLF, and all of PLF’s supporters, for allowing a regular family to get our day in court — at the nation’s highest court.”
To our donors, PLF’s staff echoes those comments: THANK YOU! Please continue your generous support, so PLF can keep “rescuing liberty” — from county courts to the Supreme Court!