Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of federally-owned land for preservation, creating 10 new national parks, monuments, and preserves (units), 16 U.S.C. 3102(4). In establishing boundaries, Congress followed natural features rather than enclosing only federally-owned lands, sweeping in more than 18 million acres of state, Native, and private land, which could have become subject to many National Park Service rules, 54 U.S.C. 100751 (Organic Act). ANILCA Section 103(c) states that only “public lands,” defined as most federally-owned lands, waters, and associated interests, within any unit’s boundaries are “deemed” part of that unit and that no state, Native, or private lands “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within units." The Service may “acquire such lands,” after which it may administer the land as public lands within units. Sturgeon traveled by hovercraft up the Nation River within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve unit. Park rangers informed him that the Service’s rules (36 CFR 2.17(e)) prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters “located within [a park’s] boundaries.” That regulation, issued under the Service’s Organic Act authority, applies to parks nationwide without regard to the ownership of submerged lands, tidelands, or lowlands. The district court and the Ninth Circuit denied Sturgeon relief. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Nation River is not public land under ANILCA. Running waters cannot be owned; under the Submerged Lands Act, Alaska, not the United States, holds “title to and ownership" of the lands beneath navigable waters, 43 U.S.C. 1311. Even if the United States has an “interest” in the River under the reserved-water-rights doctrine, the River itself would not be “public land.” Section 103(c) exempts non-public lands, including waters, from Park Service regulations, which apply “solely” to public lands within the units. View "Sturgeon v. Frost" on Justia Law

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The McCarthy law firm was hired to carry out a nonjudicial foreclosure on Obduskey’s Colorado home. Obduskey invoked the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) provision, 15 U.S.C. 1692g(b), providing that if a consumer disputes the amount of a debt, a “debt collector” must “cease collection” until it “obtains verification of the debt” and mails a copy to the debtor. Instead, McCarthy initiated a nonjudicial foreclosure action. The Tenth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of Obduskey’s suit, holding that McCarthy was not a “debt collector.” A business engaged in only nonjudicial foreclosure proceedings is not a “debt collector” under the FDCPA, except for the limited purpose of section 1692f(6). The FDCPA defines “debt collector” an “any person . . . in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts.” The limited-purpose definition states that “[f]or the purpose of section 1692f(6) . . . [the] term [debt collector] also includes any person . . . in any business the principal purpose of which is the enforcement of security interests.” McCarthy, in enforcing security interests, is subject to the specific prohibitions contained in 1692f(6) but is not subject to the FDCPA’s main coverage. Congress may have chosen to treat security-interest enforcement differently from ordinary debt collection to avoid conflicts with state nonjudicial foreclosure schemes; this reading is supported by legislative history, which suggests that the present language was a compromise between totally excluding security-interest enforcement and treating it like ordinary debt collection. View "Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP" on Justia Law

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Minnesota law provides that “the dissolution or annulment of a marriage revokes any revocable . . . beneficiary designation . . . made by an individual to the individual’s former spouse,” Minn. Stat. 524.2–804. If an insurance policyholder does not want that result, he may rename the ex-spouse as beneficiary. Sveen and Melin were married in 1997. Sveen purchased a life insurance policy, naming Melin as the primary beneficiary and designating his children from a prior marriage as contingent beneficiaries. The marriage ended in 2007. The divorce decree did not mention the insurance policy. Sveen did not revise his beneficiary designations. After Sveen died in 2011, Melin and the Sveen children claimed the insurance proceeds. Melin argued that because the law did not exist when the policy was purchased, applying the later-enacted law violated the Contracts Clause. The Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit, holding that the retroactive application of Minnesota’s law does not violate the Contracts Clause. The test for determining when a law crosses the constitutional line first asks whether the state law has “operated as a substantial impairment of a contractual relationship,” considering the extent to which the law undermines the contractual bargain, interferes with a party’s reasonable expectations, and prevents the party from safeguarding or reinstating his rights. If such factors show a substantial impairment, the inquiry turns to whether the state law is drawn in a “reasonable” way to advance “a significant and legitimate public purpose.” Three aspects of Minnesota’s law, taken together, show that the law does not substantially impair pre-existing contractual arrangements. The law is designed to reflect a policyholder’s intent and to support, rather than impair, the contractual scheme. The law is unlikely to disturb any policyholder’s expectations at the time of contracting, because an insured cannot reasonably rely on a beneficiary designation staying in place after a divorce. Divorce courts have wide discretion to divide property upon dissolution of a marriage. The law supplies a mere default rule, which the policyholder can easily undo. View "Sveen v. Melin" on Justia Law

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The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe purchased land and commissioned a boundary survey, which convinced the Tribe that about an acre of its land lay on the other side of a boundary fence between its land and land owned by the Lundgrens. The Lundgrens filed a quiet title action in Washington state court, arguing adverse possession and mutual acquiescence. The Washington Supreme Court rejected the Tribe’s sovereign immunity claim, reasoning that tribal sovereign immunity does not apply to in rem suits. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded. The precedent on which the state court relied (Yakima) addressed not the scope of tribal sovereign immunity, but a question of statutory interpretation of the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887. The Act authorized the President to allot parcels of reservation land to individual tribal members and directed the government to issue fee patents to the allottees. In 1934, Congress reversed course but did not withdraw the lands already conveyed so that Indian reservations sometimes contain both trust land held by the government and fee-patented land held by private parties. The Supreme Court held that the state collection of property taxes on fee-patented land within reservations was allowed under the Act; Yakima resolved nothing about the law of sovereign immunity. View "Upper Skagit Tribe v. Lundgren" on Justia Law

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The St. Croix River, part of the boundary between Wisconsin and Minnesota, is protected under federal, state, and local law. State and local regulations prevent the use or sale of adjacent riverside lots under common ownership as separate building sites unless they have at least one acre of land suitable for development. Petitioners’ parents purchased adjacent Troy, Wisconsin lots separately in the 1960s, and transferred one lot to petitioners in 1994 and the other to petitioners in 1995. Each lot is over one acre, but because of the topography, each has less than one acre suitable for development; common ownership barred their separate sale or development. Petitioners unsuccessfully sought variances, then filed suit, alleging a regulatory taking. The state courts and U.S. Supreme Court rejected the claims, regarding the property as a single unit in assessing the effect of the challenged governmental action. The Court noted the flexibility inherent in regulatory takings jurisprudence. Courts must consider several factors. Wisconsin’s merger provision is a legitimate exercise of state power and the valid merger of the lots under state law informs the reasonable expectation that the lots will be treated as a single property. The lots are contiguous. Their terrain and shape make it reasonable to expect their range of potential uses might be limited. Petitioners could have anticipated regulation of the property, given its location along the river, which was regulated by federal, state, and local law long before they acquired the land. The restriction is mitigated by the benefits of using the property as an integrated whole, allowing increased privacy and recreational space, plus an optimal location for any improvements. This relationship is evident in the lots’ combined valuation. View "Murr v. Wisconsin" on Justia Law