Be Careful What You Don’t Ask For, Because You Just Might Get Seventy-Five Million Dollars: Why the Federal Claims Court Got It Wrong in Stearns Co., Ltd. v. United States

Comment By: Kevin A. Floyd; JNREL Vol. 19, No. 1

Abstract By: Tanner James, Staff Member

The Fifth Amendment, in establishing the Takings Clause, prohibits the government from taking private property "for public use, without just compensation." U.S. Const. amend. V. Determining what it means to take, however, may present some difficulty for courts. An overly narrow construction may expose private individuals and corporations to unjust governmental control. An overly broad construction, as was seen in Stearns Co., Ltd. v. United States, 53 Fed. Cl. 446 (2002), may put the Treasury at the mercy of the litigious.

In Stearns, the Federal Claims Court found that implementation of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA)—specifically, the restriction of mining within the boundaries of national forests—was sufficient to constitute "taking" of Stearns Co.'s property in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Notably absent from the court's analysis, however, was the fact that Stearns, Co. had bargained away its sovereign control over the mines when it sold the tract(s) of land to the Federal Government prior to the passing of the SMCRA. These self-imposed limits suggest that the plaintiff corporation contemplated subjecting itself to government regulation similar to the SMCRA. Furthermore, the court failed to address the relevant elements of claims that arise under the Takings Clause, and failed to support its ruling with sufficient, relevant precedent.

Whereas the holding in itself may not pose a substantial threat to the government, the risk of opening the door to this kind of precipitous, overbroad interpretation of the Takings Clause does. While the common sentiment is that the government should be limited in its powers, these limitations, if construed too broadly, could render the government helpless against hefty lawsuits...even when they have taken precautions through previous agreements.