High court hears S.C. property case

March 03, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau Staff Writer Tim Wheeler contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- A South Carolina lawyer, arguing a Supreme Court case over the power to curb developers across the nation, urged the justices yesterday to rule that states should have to pay landowners nothing even if their waterfront homes have to be torn down to save the beach.

That argument marked the outer limit of a plea by C. W. Harness III of Charleston, S.C., to "insulate" states from having to pay compensation to property owners when officials curb development to protect the environment.

He was one of two lawyers to undergo heavy questioning as the court explored the power of government to restrict private land use, perhaps even to the point of barring any development at all.

A final ruling for or against that sweeping authority is considered likely to have a major impact not only on coastal states like Maryland and South Carolina, but on all states and local governments when theyput limits on private developers.

Throughout an hourlong hearing, the justices actively pressed the lawyers to spell out precisely what they wanted the court to do: Either free states from paying compensation in return for land regulation, or require them to pay if their actions reduced sharply the economic value of private landholdings.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia pushed the state of South Carolina's lawyer to define the limits of state power, before a duty to compensate arose.

Mr. Harness at first said that it would be "more fair," in protecting beaches, to forbid new development by property owners than to require existing homes or buildings to be torn down. Beach erosion or storms might simply remove the existing buildings over time, he said.

But Justice O'Connor bore down, asking whether the state would feel a duty to pay compensation if it thought that those in existing houses along the beach were themselves threatened and decided that those houses should have to be torn down.

"Compensation, or no compensation?" she asked. "No compensation," Mr. Harness answered. If the threat of "public harm" were great enough, he said, and "people in there were threatened," the state should be able to order homes destroyed and not have to pay.

On the other side of the case, Lawyer A. Camden Lewis, speaking for landowner David H. Lucas of Columbia, S.C., argued that even if the state were using its power over land to prevent "a nuisance," it still should have to pay compensation when once-valuable development rights were taken away by officials.

Mr. Lucas has been barred by a South Carolina law from developing two lots along the Atlantic Ocean, on the Isle of Palms, that he bought for $975,000.

His lawyer, Mr. Lewis, claimed that the opportunity to develop one's own land was "a fundamental right" under the Constitution.

A final ruling by the court on the Lucas case is expected by early

this summer.

OTHER SUPREME COURT ACTIONS

Cases to be heard

Criminal trials. The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether a criminal trial in federal court may go ahead if the accused person refuses to show up for the start of a trial. The issue arose in a St. Paul, Minn. fraud case. A judge ordered the trial to go forward when one of the accused individuals, who knew about the starting date, did not appear. Crosby vs. U.S., No. 91-6194.

Prison inmates. The court agreed to decide whether a prison inmates advocacy group can qualify as a "pauper," since it has no money, and thus can file lawsuits in federal court over inmates' rights without having to pay any of the fees and costs. A lower court said they could. Rowland vs. Men's Advisory Council (No. 91-1188).

Illegal aliens. The court also said it would rule on the constitutionality of government rules that keep in confinement all illegal alien children who are found in this country, until officials decide whether to deport them. A lower court said the government must give unrelated adults who are willing a chance to keep the children in the meantime. Barr vs. Flores (No. 91-905).

Case rejected

Deputy sheriffs. Without comment, the court left intact a lower court ruling that deputy sheriffs are not protected by the Constitution from being fired because they belong to the wrong political party. The lower court said that deputies' jobs are so closely tied to the sheriff that the deputies may be fired when a new sheriff of a different political party takes office. Thulen vs. Bausman (No. 91-691) and Upton vs. Thompson (No. 91-1045).

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