Newly confirmed Justice Clarence Thomas's stand on economic rights will be tested early this year when the Supreme Court takes up the case of Yee v. Escondido. Specifically, he and the other justices must decide whether the lack of vacancy decontrol in the city's rent-control law amounts to an unjustified taking of property under the Fifth Amendment.
In the 1988 case Hall v. Santa Barbara, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the vacancy control in Santa Barbara's mobile-home rent law was an unconstitutional taking of property. This prompted other California mobile-home park owners to sue for compensation, but state courts have generally refused to abide by the precedent. Yee is the first of those cases to make it to the Supreme Court, and the decision the Court makes will be binding upon state courts throughout the nation.
The Pacific Legal Foundation's John Findley, who plans to file an amicus brief on behalf of Yee, is optimistic that the Court will uphold the Ninth Circuit's decision. "The Court didn't take this case up idly. They've been moving toward greater protection of property rights for the last few years, and everything we know about Thomas says that he'll be sympathetic to that goal."
While the Ninth Circuit opinion affects only mobile-home parks, if it is upheld by the Supreme Court, apartment owners not given vacancy decontrol will almost certainly sue for compensation. Cities such as Santa Monica, Berkeley, New York City, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, would then have to let rents rise to market value after a tenant vacates or compensate apartment owners for the difference between the fixed rent and the market rate.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Rent Control Check".