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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Epstein on Sotomayor

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Epstein on Sotomayor

Richard Epstein, writing on the Sotomayor nomination to the Supreme Court, expresses dismay over President Obama's and Sotomayor's lack of concern about the protection of property rights ("The Sotomayor Nomination," Forbes, May 26, 2009)

We have already seen a president whose professed devotion to the law takes a backseat to all sorts of other considerations. The treatment of the compensation packages of key AIG executives (which eventually led to the indecorous resignation of Edward Liddy), and the massive insinuation of the executive branch into the (current) Chrysler and (looming) General Motors bankruptcies are sure to generate many a spirited struggle over two issues that are likely to define our future Supreme Court's jurisprudence. The level of property rights protection against government intervention on the one hand, and the permissible scope of unilateral action by the president in a system that is (or at least should be) characterized by a system of separation of powers and checks and balances on the other.

Here is one straw in the wind that does not bode well for a Sotomayor appointment. Justice Stevens of the current court came in for a fair share of criticism (all justified in my view) for his expansive reading in Kelo v. City of New London (2005) of the "public use language." Of course, the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment is as complex as it is short: "Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." But he was surely done one better in the Summary Order in Didden v. Village of Port Chester issued by the Second Circuit in 2006. Judge Sotomayor was on the panel that issued the unsigned opinion--one that makes Justice Stevens look like a paradigmatic defender of strong property rights.

I have written about Didden in Forbes. The case involved about as naked an abuse of government power as could be imagined. Bart Didden came up with an idea to build a pharmacy on land he owned in a redevelopment district in Port Chester over which the town of Port Chester had given Greg Wasser control. Wasser told Didden that he would approve the project only if Didden paid him $800,000 or gave him a partnership interest. The "or else" was that the land would be promptly condemned by the village, and Wasser would put up a pharmacy himself. Just that came to pass. But the Second Circuit panel on which Sotomayor sat did not raise an eyebrow. Its entire analysis reads as follows: "We agree with the district court that [Wasser's] voluntary attempt to resolve appellants' demands was neither an unconstitutional exaction in the form of extortion nor an equal protection violation."

Maybe I am missing something, but American business should shudder in its boots if Judge Sotomayor takes this attitude to the Supreme Court. Justice Stevens wrote that the public deliberations over a comprehensive land use plan is what saved the condemnation of Ms. Kelo's home from constitutional attack. Just that element was missing in the Village of Port Chester fiasco. Indeed, the threats that Wasser made look all too much like the "or else" diplomacy of the Obama administration in business matters.


  1. I also express some concern about Judge Sotomayor's nomination. He seems to not be able to make the right decision concerning government intervention on property rights and how that strips away some of unalienable rights of its citizens.

  2. Derrick Villa10/6/09 12:25 AM

    I feel that we may not be hearing the entire story just because the panel agreed that the case was not unconstitutional doesn't mean that Sotomayor didn't have any objections. I'm not sure how the Second Ciruit court system works, but isn't there a possiblity that the panel had a majority vote over the case not being unconsitutional so then if that was the case not everyone agreed for the same action. Overall I still feel that Sotomayor is a qualified nominee and that her other cases defend that she has a well rounded background that will benefit the Supreme Court jury if chosen.