Property Rights and Cases From the United States Supreme Court

Throughout much of American history the Supreme Court has defended property rights against legislative interference.   In the values of the framers of the Constitution who were strongly influenced by the natural law philosophy of John Locke.  According to this philosophy, private property existed under natural law before the creation of political authority.  Building on natural law theory, the 18th century conservative political tradition stress the rights of property owners is for freedom against arbitrary government.  The framers also emphasised the economic utility of private property.  They believed that security of property and contractual arrangements facilitated development of investment and the emergence of capital as well is a strong economy. Although some state constitutions contain provisions to protect property rights in years immediately following the revolution many became convinced that state governments could not be trusted to respect property ownership. Accordingly, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were virtually concerned only with the need to safeguard economic interests against arbitrary government intervention.

Numerous provisions of the Constitution pertain to economic interests. As an example, the Constitution prevents Congress or the states from confiscating property through bills attainder and limits the power of Congress to impose direct taxes. The Constitution also contains several clauses which protected property in slaves. Foremost among the Constitutional restrictions on state authority was contracts cause which obeyed states from enacting any law impairing the obligation of contracts. Even more important was the fifth amendment which provided that no person should be deprived of life liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.  The fifth amendment in effect incorporated into the Constitution, the idea found in the philosophy of John Locke that the protection of property was a chief aim of government.

From the very beginning, the Federal Court signalled their intention to safeguard existing economic arrangements and to curtail state legislative interference with property rights. In the case of champion against Casey which was heard in 1792 one of the first exercises of Federal judicial review found a circuit court giving a determination to Rhode Island statute granting an individual debtor exemption from attachments for a period of time was unconstitutional impairment of contract.  this was clearly an expression of the philosophy of natural law related to property. Looking to the precepts of natural law rather than any specific cause of the Constitution some Federal judges adopted doctrine of vested rights to protect establish property rights from legislative impediment. According to this doctrine, property ownership is a fundamental right. Laws that disturb such rights were void because they violate the principles limiting or constitutional governments. Justice William Paterson articulate this view in a significant circa case of an forms lessee against dominance of 1795. Observing that the right of acquiring possessing property and having protected is one of the natural inherent in inalienable rights of man, Paterson implicitly linked the doctrine of natural rights with the contracts cause in the Constitution.  When he wrote an opinion in the very famous case of Telco against bull in 1798, Justice Samuel chase reiterated the vested rights doctrine saying there are certain vital principles in our free Republican governments which will determine an overall an apparent in flagrant abuse of legislative power. Chase maintained that the legislature could not violate the right of an antecedent lawful private contract or the right of private property.

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