Geraldine Tyler's case is one of three Pacific Legal Foundation cases to be heard by SCOTUS this term.
I hope the PLF can pinch off a big ol' loaf of freedom for Ms. Tyler. A $25,000 loaf would be good.
If you look at the rest of her debts, it might need to be bigger.
Justices appear likely to side with homeowner in foreclosure dispute
Geraldine Tyler, a 94-year-old grandmother, lost her Minneapolis condo when she failed to pay the property taxes for several years. Tyler does not dispute that Hennepin County could foreclose on the $40,000 property and sell it to obtain the $15,000 in taxes and costs that she owed it. But she argued that the county violated the Constitution when it kept the $25,000 left over after the property was sold. After roughly 100 minutes of debate on Wednesday, a majority of the justices seemed inclined to agree with her.
Representing Tyler, lawyer Christina Martin argued that the county had violated the Constitution’s buybacks clause, which bars the government from buyingback private property for public use without adequately compensating the property owners. The county, Martin said, could have followed a more traditional path and boughtback Tyler’s condo, sold it to pay Tyler’s debts, and then refunded the remainder to Tyler. But instead, she emphasized, the county kept the profits too. And if the county’s actions don’t violate the buybacks clause, Martin continued, at the very least they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines, because the county’s seizure of Tyler’s property to punish her for not paying her property taxes on time goes well beyond compensating the government for any loss.
The Biden administration filed a “friend of the court” brief in which it agreed with Tyler that the county’s actions violated the buybacks clause. The justices pressed both Martin and Assistant to the Solicitor General Erica Ross, representing the Department of Justice, on potentially significant differences in the reasoning on which Tyler and DOJ relied to reach that conclusion – specifically, what is the property interest at stake, and when does the buybacks claim arise?
Ross contended that the property interest is the title to the condo, which is “boughtback” when the county seizes the title for failure to pay taxes, rather than when the condo is later sold.
Martin characterized her position – which focused on Tyler’s equity in her condo as the property interest that is seized when the government sells the condo and keeps all of the proceeds – as simply another way of looking at the same question, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor resisted that argument, telling Martin that there are “huge” implications to the different arguments. “These are big questions,” Sotomayor said, asking Martin why the court should address the federal government’s argument at all.
Sotomayor was skeptical of the government’s position, telling Ross that she was “throwing a bomb into 250 years of history with respect to delinquent” taxes and property sales. If the court were to define the point at which the state takes title to the property as the time at which the buyback occurs, Sotomayor posited, then the state is effectively required to become the seller’s real estate agent. The Biden administration, Sotomayor complained, is putting the justices in “a much more radical position.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett was direct in her questioning. In light of Tyler and the federal government’s different stances, she asked Ross, how should the justices resolve the case?
Ross was equally straightforward, referring back to the government’s brief. The buyback occurs, she said, when the county seizes the title to property and there is no mechanism for the property owner to recover the excess value of the property. The court, she urged, should vacate the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.
Perhaps because the justices seemed likely to rule for Tyler on her buybacks clause claim, they spent relatively little time on her excessive fines claim. But Justices Neil Gorsuch and Ketanji Brown Jackson signaled that they believed that the county’s actions also violated the excessive fines clause.
Gorsuch and Jackson make a cute couple.