The question before the Supreme Court in this case was whether the Florida supreme court effected a “judicial taking” in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by departing abruptly in its decision from its own precedents and eliminating a vested property right without providing just compensation.
The Florida court held that the individual members of Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc., a coalition beachfront property owners, did not have the right of accretion, i.e., the gradual seaward growth of the shoreline, or the right of direct contact with the water. Therefore, the Florida court concluded that the property owners were not entitled to compensation when the state implemented a beachfront erosion control project that eliminated both their access to the water and ownership of any future accreted shoreline. In its amicus brief in support of the property owners, NELF urged the Court to recognize the doctrine of judicial taking, first articulated in Justice Stewart’s powerful concurrence in Hughes v. Washington, 389 U.S. 290 (1967), and hold that where, as here, a state court departs abruptly and unforeseeably from clear precedent and eliminates well-established property rights, that decision constitutes a taking requiring just compensation under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
NELF argued, inter alia, that, although normally the highest state court is the final arbiter of a state’s property laws, the Court’s adoption of Justice Stewart’s judicial taking analysis in this case would be consistent with the general and time-honored principle that state courts may not circumvent the Constitution by invoking purported state-law grounds that actually lack “fair or substantial support” in state law and therefore constitute state judicial evasion of federal rights.
While the Supreme Court, in its June 17, 2010 decision unanimously affirmed the Florida Supreme Court’s decision, the Court did not reject NELF’s arguments. Rather, its decision in the case was based on the conclusion that, even if the doctrine of judicial taking were recognized, no taking had occurred in the case, because the Court found that the property owners’ littoral rights were not superior to the state’s right to fill in its submerged land. Of the eight Justices participating in the decision, four would have expressly recognized the judicial taking doctrine; the other four declined to reach the issue because it was not necessary to the outcome of the decision.