In Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld a state beach restoration project against landowner claims of an unconstitutional taking of the property. This result was not nearly as surprising as the fact that the Court granted certiorari on a case that turned on an obscure aspect of Florida property law: whether landowners adjacent to a beach had the rights to future accretions of sand and to maintain contact with the water.
The Court’s curious interest in the case was piqued by the landowners’ recasting the case from the regulatory taking claim they unsuccessfully pursued in the Florida courts to the judicial taking claim they argued before the Supreme Court. The petitioners contended that the Florida Supreme Court’s interpretation of Florida property law warranted constitutional compensation because the effect was to replace an eroded, hurricane-ravaged private beach with a restored, publicly-accessible beach. Although no member of the Court agreed that the lower court’s opinion amounted to a taking, a four-member plurality, led by Justice Scalia and encouraged by numerous amicus briefs filed by libertarian property groups, gave a ringing endorsement to the concept of judicial takings. Moreover, two other members of the Court, Justices Kennedy and Sotomayor, claimed that state court property law interpretations could be cabined by the Due Process Clause. The result portends ominous implications for state courts’ capability to perform their traditional common law function of updating property law to reflect contemporary values and may unsettle federalstate judicial relations by encouraging litigants to appeal adverse state property law decisions to federal courts.