The U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to review the Florida Supreme Court's decision in Walton County v. Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc., 998 So.2d 1102 (Fla. Sep. 29, 2008), which held that a state statute prohibiting "beach renourishment" without a permit did not effect a taking of littoral (beachfront) property, even though it altered the long-standing rights of the owners to accretion on their land and direct access to the ocean. See Stop the Beachfront Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Dep't of Environmental Protection, No. 08-11 (cert. granted. June 15, 2009). More background on the case at our resource page.
The Court accepted three questions for review, and the cert petition relied on two rather notorious cases with Hawaii origins to support the conclusion that a decision by a state court which unexpectedly changes established state common law rules of property is a compensable taking. See Pet. at 31-32 (citing Robinson v. Ariyoshi, 753 F.2d 1468 (9th Cir. 1985); Sotomura v. County of Hawaii, 460 F. Supp. 473 (D. Haw. 1978)). The first Question Presented accepted for review is:
The Florida Supreme Court invoked "nonexistent rules of state substantive law" to reverse 100 years of uniform holdings that littoral rights are constitutionally protected. In doing so, did the Florida Court's decision cause a "judicial taking" proscribed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution?
In this post, we explore the background to the esoteric issue of "judicial takings" presented by the two Hawaii cases.
Robinson v. Ariyoshi — The Never Ending (Water Rights) Story
The Robinson litigation is one that holds a special place in our hearts, as it is a tale interwoven with the recent history of Hawaii, taking us from the time before jet travel when sugar and pineapple -- not tourism -- were the economic engines driving politics and the economy of the Territory of Hawaii, through the salad days of the openly activist Hawaii Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice William S. Richardson, and finally sputtering out (sort of) after the U.S. Supreme Court's ripeness ruling in Williamson County Regional Planning Comm'n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985).
Here's the short summary, repeated from memory (the litigation, which is still pending, has been going on for 50 years now, so please forgive us if a few of the details are off). The case started out in 1959 in a Kauai county trial court as a dispute between several sugar plantations over which of them possessed the rights to surplus water in a Kauai stream, among other things. Nine years later, the trial court issued a 65-page decision based on long-standing Kingdom, Territory, and State water law, and declared who owned what. So far, it was just another in a long line of water disputes between private parties. The losing parties took the case to the Hawaii Supreme Court (in those days, there was no Intermediate Court of Appeals and all appeals by right went directly to the Supreme Court), where no party, including the State, argued that the controlling water law was anything but as established by long-standing Hawaii cases.
The Hawaii Supreme Court, however, "sua sponte overruled all territorial cases to the contrary and adopted the English common law doctrine of riparian rights." Robinson, 753 F.2d at 1470 (citing McBryde Sugar Co. v. Robinson, 54 Haw. 174, 504 P.2d 1330 (1973)). The court "also held sua sponte that there was no such legal category as 'normal daily surplus water' and declared that the state, as sovereign, owned and had the exclusive right to control the flow," and "that because the flow of the Hanapepe [stream] was the sovereign property of the State of Hawaii, McBryde's claim of a prescriptive right to divert water could not be sustained against the state." Robinson, 753 F.2d at 1470. In other words, in a dispute between "A" and "B" over which of them possessed water rights, the Supreme Court simply said "neither of you do, the State owns it all."
The private parties who thought they had owned something for over a hundred years were understandably a bit miffed that their property had seemingly morphed into public property by the stroke of a Justice's pen, and, to add insult to injury, without even the chance to brief the Supreme Court before it announced the new rule. But after a rehearing on a narrow issue of state law, during which the court rebuffed an attempt by the private parties to raise federal constitutional issues, the Hawaii Supreme Court reaffrimed the McBryde ruling, with two Justices dissenting. See McBryde Sugar Co. v. Robinson, 55 Haw. 260, 517 P.2d 26 (1973) (per curiam). Justice Bernard Levinson switched his vote from the first opinion, concluding that it was a "radical departure" from established law, and was a taking:
Although I voted with the majority of this court in McBryde Sugar Co. v. Robinson, 54 Haw. 174, 504 P.2d 1330 (1973) [hereinafter referred to as McBryde I], I am constrained to recant that position in view of my current understanding of the problems of this case. In light of the arguments adduced on rehearing, historical evidence discovered upon further research subsequent to the court's previous decision in this case, and a reappraisal of the reasoning supporting that decision, it is my opinion that the court committed error in holding that all surplus water belongs to the State and that private water rights, however acquired, may not be transferred to nonappurtenant land. Because of the importance of this case to the development of the law on the subject of Hawaii's water resources, I have undertaken to present a detailed analysis explaining why McBryde I is not in keeping with long established and unique principles of Hawaiian water law. Precisely because McBryde I is such a radical departure from these principles as they have been heretofore understood, moreover, I have concluded that McBryde I effectuates an unconstitutional taking of the appellant's and cross-appellants' property without just compensation and should be reversed on this ground as well.
McBryde, 55 Haw. at 262-63, 517 P.2d at 27 (Levinson, J., dissenting). The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari meaning the Hawaii Supreme Court's McBryde decision was final.
But it was not the last word. The sugar companies sued the state (Governor Ariyoshi, actually, since under Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), a state official can be sued in federal court to enjoin unconstitutional conduct despite the 11th Amendment) in federal district court under the federal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district judge -- the inimitable Martin Pence -- held that the Hawaii Supreme Court's McBryde decision took property without just compensation, and enjoined the state from enforcing the decision. See Robinson v. Ariyoshi, 441 F.Supp. 559 (D.Haw. 1977).
Up to the Ninth Circuit the parties went, which noted the tortured procedural path the case next took, including a detour back to the Hawaii Supreme Court on certified questions when the Ninth Circuit asked the court whether it really meant what it said in McBryde:
The leisurely pace of this litigation has produced three oral arguments in this court, two of which were followed by referral of certified questions to the Supreme Court of Hawaii. See Robinson v. Ariyoshi, 65 Hawaii 641, 658 P.2d 287 (1982) (Robinson II). Following the publication of the state court's answers to the certified questions, the parties briefed the remaining issues that had been narrowed by the earlier proceedings and reargued the case. A number of complex questions remain, but to expedite the matter we will discuss only those essential to a resolution of the main question: Can the state, by a judicial decision which creates a major change in property law, divest property interests?
Robinson, 753 F.2d at 1471. [Barista's note: are you keeping score yet? There's McBryde. McBryde II. McBryde III. Robinson I. Robinson II. Robinson III. Still to come: Robinson IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII, and then back to McBryde IV.] After addressing jurisdictional issues, res judicata, and the Rooker/Feldman doctrine, the Ninth Circuit addressed the merits:
The state conceded at oral argument that the Fourteenth Amendment would require it to pay just compensation if it attempted to take vested property rights. The substantive question, therefore, is whether the state can declare, by court decision, that the water rights in this case have not vested. The short answer is no.
Robinson, 753 F.2d at 1473.The court determined that the water rights claimed by the private parties were vested rights, and that the state legislature or the state supreme court cannot alter those rights without condemnation and payment of just compensation.
By the time Robinson IV rolled around, the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its ruling in Williamson County Regional Planning Comm'n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985) that certain regulatory takings case were not ripe, and it granted cert and summarily vacated the Ninth Circuit's Robinson decision, ordering it to consider the decision again in light of Williamson County's new ripeness rules. See Ariyoshi v. Robinson, 477 U.S. 902 (1986) (Robinson IV). The Ninth Circuit vacated its earlier order (Robinson v. Ariyoshi, 796 F.2d 339 (9th Cir.1986) (Robinson V) and sent the case back to Judge Pence in the District Court.
Not to be deterred, Judge Pence found the case ripe under Williamson County. See Robinson v. Ariyoshi, 676 F.Supp. 1002, 1020-21 (D.Haw. 1987) (Robinson VI). Back up to the Ninth Circuit they went, and in Robinson v. Ariyoshi, 854 F.2d 1189 (9th Cir. 1988) (Robinson VII), the Ninth Circuit ordered further briefing on the issue. In Robinson v. Ariyoshi, 887 F.2d 215 (9th Cir. 1990) (Robinson VIII), the Ninth Circuit vacated the District Court's decision and sent it back with instructions to dismiss the case because it was not ripe under Williamson County.
A thirty-one year old case was not ripe, you say? How so?
As noted, we previously certified six questions to the Supreme Court of Hawaii. In response, the Hawaii court stated that the decision in McBryde II did not constitute the final disposition of the case. See Robinson II, 658 P.2d at 295-97. The court explained that the McBryde litigation began and was treated throughout by the trial court as an action to determine the rights of the parties to the waters of the Hanapepe. The trial court had attempted to identify the exact quantity of water to which each party was entitled. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Hawaii affirmed the award of appurtenant rights and reversed the award of prescriptive and surplus rights. No specific instruction was imparted to the trial court, and the Supreme Court did not utilize its power to render a final judgment. Further, no further proceedings are of record in the trial court. The court explained that the partial reversal without instruction merely rendered that portion of the judgment void. Id. at 296-97. Thus the only portion of the judgment which could be considered final after appeal was the partial quantification of the parties' water rights, namely the award of appurtenant rights.
Robinson VIII, 887 F.2d at 218 (footnote omitted). Unbelievably, a third cert petition was not sought, and the litigation (per the Hawaii Supreme Court's edict as noted above) went back to the Kauai trial court where it all began in 1959, where, as far as anyone in these parts is aware, the case remains on the docket. The state certainly has no interest in moving it forward and ripening the case, and the private parties who originated the litigation are long since out of the sugar business. [See one note of correction in the comments.] Kauai is now a place of tax revolts, zoning fights, and quiet beaches, and the sugar industry is but a distant memory.
County of Hawaii v. Sotomura — Shifting The Line in the Sand
If you have managed to come along this far, congratulations -- there's more, but thankfully it's a shorter tale and one which follows the same general plot.
McBryde/Robinson was not a unique case, and the Hawaii Supreme Court regularly accomplished similar changes in established law in other areas. In County of Hawaii v. Sotomura, 55 Haw. 176, 517 P.2d 57 (1973), the court redefined the seaward boundary of a littoral parcel in a condemnation action from the high water mark to the "upper reaches of the wash of the waves," holding that no compensation was owed for the land seaward of the new line because it was owned by the state. The trial court had awarded nominal compensation of one dollar to the property owner for the condemnation of this property, but the Supreme Court declared that was error and took the dollar away. [Disclosure: my late law partner and name partner of our firm, Charlie Key, represented the property owners in the Hawaii Supreme Court.]
The property owners followed the Robinson script and sued in federal district court (for due process violations, not under a takings theory). The court determined "[j]udicial transfers of title to private lands to the State which do not permit the owner an opportunity to be heard or to present evidence is not constitutionally valid. Whenever a party is to be deprived of property, he is entitled to a meaningful hearing before the fact." Sotomura v. County of Hawaii, 460 F. Supp. 473, 478 (D. Haw. 1978). The district court concluded:
This Court fails to find any legal, historical, factual or other precedent or basis for the conclusions of the Hawaii Supreme Court that, following erosion, the monument by which the seaward boundary of seashore land in Hawaii is to be fixed is the upper reaches of the wash of the waves. To the contrary, the evidence introduced in this case firmly establishes that the common law, followed by both legal precedent and historical practice, fixes the high water mark and seaward boundaries with reference to the tides, as opposed to the run or reach of waves on the shore. For example, on the Island of Hawaii, the seaweed line was used to indicate the level of the high tides and high water mark. The decision in Sotomura was contrary to established practice, history and precedent and, apparently, was intended to implement the court's conclusion that public policy favors extension of public use and ownership of the shoreline. A desire to promote public policy, however, does not constitute justification for a state taking private property without compensation.
Id. at 480-81. The state's appeal to the Ninth Circuit was dismissed as untimely.
Just think of the possibilities if the deadline had not been missed -- this case might still be going on today.