Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · April 16, 2024

WASHINGTON—This morning, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that a Texas rancher and his neighbors may continue to seek compensation from the state of Texas after a highway project flooded out their property. Richie DeVillier, a third-generation rancher whose land was turned into a lake after Texas officials built a dam along the median of the highway just south of it, is represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit public interest law firm that defends property rights nationwide.

“Lower courts had held that landowners like Richie were powerless to compel states like Texas to obey the Constitution,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “Today’s ruling makes clear that property owners have more power than Texas thought.”

The case started in 2020 when the family sued Texas, arguing that the state wasn’t allowed to use their land as a detention pond without paying for the privilege. Texas insisted that it could not be sued under the Fifth Amendment because federal civil-rights statutes only authorize suits against individuals or local governments—not the states. And it won: The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the DeVilliers could not sue Texas for failing to pay just compensation under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. The Supreme Court granted review to decide for itself.

At the Supreme Court, however, Texas changed its tune. In a maneuver Justice Sonia Sotomayor characterized as a “bait and switch,” Texas insisted that the DeVilliers could sue under the Fifth Amendment after all and that, whatever federal law says, Texas law gave them the right to invoke the Fifth Amendment directly.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Clarence Thomas said that concession was enough to resolve the case: “On remand,” the opinion says, “DeVillier and the other property owners should be permitted to pursue their claims under the Takings Clause through the cause of action available under Texas law.”

“Texas can now be held accountable under the Fifth Amendment,” said Richie DeVillier. “This is the pinnacle of a long, hard-fought battle, and we can’t stress enough what a blessing this is.”

“Texas’ rapid about-face at the Supreme Court means that Richie and his family will still have their day in court,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock. “There is more work ahead to ensure that other government officials can be held accountable when they violate bedrock constitutional rights, but IJ is ready and eager to finish the job.”

IJ represents the petitioners alongside Daniel Charest and Larry Vincent of Burns Charest and Charles Irvine of the firm Irvine Conner.

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