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Friday, April 9, 2010

Supreme Court Denies Cert in Marshall Islands Takings Case

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari filed by Marshall Islanders seeking to reverse a 2009 ruling of the Federal Circuit.  The case has a fascinating factual context and raises interesting questions about the relationship between the Takings Clause and sovereign immunity.

As explained here by the WSJ Law Blog, the litigation was based on damages resulting from U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and 1950s.  In the early 1980s, groups representing descendants of the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls sued the federal government for just compensation, asserting that the destruction of land occassioned by the testing constituted a taking of property under the Fifth Amendment.  During the course of this litigaiton, the United States and Marshall Island governments entered a Compact of Free Association, subsequently adopted by Congress, that purported to settle the takings claims.  In exchange for the United States' acceptance of responsibility and the establishment of a tribunal to administer the just compensation claims, the Marshall Islands agreed to settle all past, present, and future claims based on the testing.  Additionally, the compact documents provided that no United States court would have jurisdiction to entertain such claims.

The tribunal subsequently awarded a total of $949,210,000 to the plaintiffs, even though Congress only appropriated $45,750,000 for payment of awards.  See People of Bikini v. United States, 554 F.3d 996, 998 (Fed. Cir. 2009).  To date, less than 1% of the tribunal's award has been paid, and only $1,000,000 remains in the claims fund.  See id.  In 2006, the plaintiffs again brought suit, asserting that they still had not received just compensation for the takings of their property.  In 2009, the Federal Circuit affirmed a decision of the Court of Federal Claims to dismiss the suit, holding that the claims had been waived by the plaintiffs and that the federal courts had been stripped of jurisdiction to hear them in any event.

The cert briefs, which can be found on SCOTUSBlog (scroll to the bottom of the page), raise interesting issues concerning the Tucker Act, sovereign immunity, and the "self-executing" nature of the Takings Clause (for those who like that sort of stuff).

Mike Kent

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