Turning DIRT Into A Supreme Appeal

The typical IJ case takes a lot of up-front investment: We file a major lawsuit, litigate for years in the courts of law and in the court of public opinion, and, eventually, work toward victory. And we use that method for good reason: Our greatest chance of success will always come with cases we have litigated ourselves, from the ground up.

But we are also committed to advancing our mission any way we can, which means every now and then, IJ has the opportunity to litigate a case we did not initiate—to take someone else’s case and use it to change the law. This does not happen often, but we are always on the lookout for a case that presents that opportunity.

And when we find those cases, they can make a big impact; we have adopted cases that turned into everything from big free speech victories to a unanimous decision from the Colorado Supreme Court giving Mile High Cab the right to start its business. This fall, we are adopting yet another high-stakes opportunity that could pay off in a major way down the line.

The case itself is mostly about dirt. Yes, dirt! Chad Jarreau of Louisiana is (or was) a dirt farmer.  He would cut large pits into his land about an hour south of New Orleans, repeatedly drain them, and then churn them for days or weeks on end, until he had fine-grained sandy dirt that was useful for construction projects. Dirt is actually big business, and Chad was very successful right up until the local levee district invoked eminent domain to take his land so it could mine the dirt itself for use in levee construction.

Dirt is actually big business, and Chad was very successful right up until the local levee district invoked eminent domain to take his land so it could mine the dirt itself for use in levee construction.

Building levees is admittedly a public use, and Chad did not contest that the government had the right to take the land to build levees to protect the region from flooding. But the U.S. Constitution requires that the government pay for what it takes. After a trial, a Louisiana state court judge held that land in Chad’s area was not very valuable, so the levee district only owed Chad about $10,000 for the land. The judge also held that Chad’s dirt business was very valuable and that losing the land had cost Chad more than $150,000 in damages. On appeal, however, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that the government does not have to pay for businesses it destroys through eminent domain, leaving Chad with only about $10,000 in compensation for a $150,000 loss. After the state Supreme Court ruling, Chad’s lawyers—longtime IJ friends—asked us to step in to take the case to the next level.

So we did, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. The High Court has not actually taken a case about eminent domain and business damages since the 1940s, and far too many lower courts have been allowing condemnations to destroy businesses without compensation. That is why we have taken on Chad’s case, asking the Supreme Court to put a stop to these uncompensated takings once and for all.

Asking the Supreme Court to hear a case is always a long shot—the Court hears only a tiny percentage of the cases it is asked to take every year. But taking high-stakes shots like this is part and parcel of IJ’s devotion to making sure no stone—or pile of dirt—goes unturned in the never-ending fight to protect our constitutional freedoms.

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