The Takings Clause, Version 2005: The Legal Process of Constitutional Property Rights


The three takings decisions that the Supreme Court issued at the end of its October 2004 Term marked a stunning reversal of the Court’s efforts the past three decades to use the Takings Clause to define a set of constitutional property rights. The regulatory takings doctrine, which once loomed as a significant threat to the modern regulatory state, now appears after Lingle v. Chevron to be a relatively tame, if complicated, check on exceptional instances of regulatory abuse. At the same time, the Public Use Clause, formerly an inconsequential limitation on the state’s eminent domain authority, now appears ripe for revision and tightening after a stirring four-justice dissent in Kelo v. City of New London and an enormous public protest decrying the majority decision.

Notwithstanding this reversal, the 2005 decisions offer a coherent approach to Takings Clause enforcement—albeit one that is likely to frustrate commentators, theorists, and property rights advocates. More clearly than ever before, the Court in its 2005 decisions abandoned the difficult, if not impossible, task of providing a clear normative justification for the Takings Clause. Instead, its decisions reveal a marked preference for preserving and furthering its vision of an institutional system of governance—a jurisprudence that is focused on the question of who should decide rather than on the substantive issue of what should be decided, and that is committed to the passive virtue of deference. In short, the Rehnquist Court explicitly chose to adopt a “legal process” approach to takings. Because it privileges structure and process over explicit considerations of substantive legal and normative issues, this approach is unsatisfactory to property and constitutional theorists; because it defers to government decisions, it is maddening to property rights advocates; and because it is technocratic and abstract, it is unsatisfactory to the public. Given the prominence of the legal process approach to constitutional review of state regulatory action in the post-New Deal era, however, judicial passivity remains attractive, if unromantic, to judicial actors. Ultimately, recognizing the Court’s shift away from defining constitutional property rights via the Takings Clause offers important descriptive and prescriptive insights into the future of takings law in the Roberts Court, especially if a majority of justices decide to tighten review of eminent domain actions or otherwise heighten judicial review under the Takings Clause.


Administrative Law | Constitutional Law | Jurisprudence | Land Use Law | Property Law and Real Estate

Date of this Version

March 2006