WASHINGTON Private property owners might deserve payment when public agencies temporarily flood their land, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a case closely watched by farmers around the country.
Pleasing property-rights advocates, the court ruled 8-0 that even temporary flooding can amount to a "taking" for which the Constitution requires compensation. The ruling in a case that arose from Arkansas will reach everywhere that government actions affect waterways.
"Because government-induced flooding can constitute a taking of property, and because a taking need not be permanent to be compensable government-induced flooding of limited duration may be compensable," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote.
A stalwart of the court's liberal wing, Ginsburg nonetheless led conservatives as well in rejecting the Obama administration's insistence that temporary floods should be exempt from the Fifth Amendment's requirement that private property won't "be taken for public use, without just compensation." The 19-page ruling means that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission might get paid eventually for the Black River flooding damage that resulted when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released water from Clearwater Dam in Missouri.
The ruling also empowers more distant property owners, such as the Wolfsen Land and Cattle Co., located along the San Joaquin River in California. Wolfsen joined other California farmers in filing a friend-of-the-court brief.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative advocacy group based in Sacramento that filed its own brief supporting Arkansas, praised the court's decision as "an important victory for the rights of all property owners."