Justice Clarence Thomas is well known for writing separate opinions highlighting the gap between the Supreme Court’s contemporary jurisprudence in a given area and the original constitutional understanding or original public meaning of the relevant constitutional provisions. Earlier this week, for example, Thomas suggested that the court should reconsider its qualified immunity jurisprudence.

Friday, in Murr v. Wisconsin, Thomas suggested that the court should reconsider the constitutional foundation of regulatory takings doctrine. Although he joined the dissent authored by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Thomas also wrote separately to highlight the tension between the court’s doctrine and the original meaning of the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause. He wrote:

I join THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s dissent because it correctly applies this Court’s regulatory takings precedents, which no party has asked us to reconsider. The Court, however, has never purported to ground those precedents in the Constitution as it was originally understood. In Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 U. S. 393, 415 (1922), the Court announced a “general rule” that “if regulation goes too far it will be recognized as a taking.” But we have since observed that, prior to Mahon, “it was generally thought that the Takings Clause reached only a ‘direct appropriation’ of property, Legal Tender Cases, 12 Wall. 457, 551 (1871), or the functional equivalent of a ‘practical ouster of [the owner’s] possession,’ Transportation Co. v. Chicago, 99 U. S. 635, 642 (1879).” Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U. S. 1003, 1014 (1992). In my view, it would be desirable for us to take a fresh look at our regulatory takings jurisprudence, to see whether it can be grounded in the original public meaning of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment or the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. See generally Rappaport, Originalism and Regulatory Takings: Why the Fifth Amendment May Not Protect Against Regulatory Takings, but the Fourteenth Amendment May, 45 San Diego L. Rev. 729 (2008) (describing the debate among scholars over those questions).

The paper Thomas cites at the end of his opinion is by University of San Diego law professor Michael Rappaport, a prominent originalist scholar (and contributor to the Originalism Blog). Here is the abstract to Rappaport’s paper:

This article explores the widely disputed issue of whether Takings Clause protects against regulatory takings, offering a novel and intermediate solution. Critics of the regulatory takings doctrine have argued that the original meaning of the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause does not cover regulatory takings. They have quickly moved from this claim to the conclusion that the incorporated Takings Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment also does not cover regulatory takings.

In this article, I accept the claim that the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause does not cover regulatory takings, but then explore the possibility that the incorporated Takings Clause does cover such takings. Applying Akhil Amar’s theory of incorporation, I argue that there are strong reasons, based on history, structure, and purpose, to conclude that the Takings Clause had a different meaning under the Fourteenth Amendment. Amar argues that the Bill of Rights was dominated by republican ideas, but that the Fourteenth Amendment was founded on more liberal notions intended to protect individual rights. This would suggest that a broad reading of the Takings Clause would further the principles underlying the Fourteenth Amendment.

Moreover, that some state courts had come to apply takings principles to regulatory and other nonphysical takings in the period between the enactment of the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment provides additional support for the possibility that the Fourteenth Amendment enactors would have understood it to apply to regulatory takings. While the paper does not attempt to prove that the Fourteenth Amendment Takings Clause applies to regulatory takings, leaving that task to others, it argues that critics of regulatory takings doctrine should no longer simply assume that the Constitution’s original meaning does not apply to state regulatory takings.

Regulatory takings is not the only context in which property rights activists may be asking the Fifth Amendment to do the constitutional work better done by the 14th Amendment (if it is to be done at all). Eminent domain may be another (for reasons I briefly sketch in this exchange).

If there is to be greater clarity about regulatory takings, it might help if the entire doctrine rested on a more secure — and constitutionally sound — foundation.