Federalism and Property Regulation Revisited

In an insightful recent post at Land Use Prof Blog, Adam MacLeod takes property scholars to task for neglecting issues of constitutional federalism:

When prominent, accomplished land use scholars discuss federalism why do they pay so little attention to the United States Constitution? However one views the desirability of any particular attempt by Congress to regulate land use, if Congress does not have the power to regulate then the rest of the discussion is moot. Yet, though extensive scholarly discussion has in recent months been committed to the problem of federalism in land use controls, scant attention has been paid to the powers enumerated in Article I….

For example, one of the most strenuously-asserted objections to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) is that it violates principles of federalism. Two very prominent scholars have argued that RLUIPA intrudes upon local control of land use without sufficient reason. I think these arguments fail, for reasons that I discuss in an article forthcoming in the Real Estate Law Journal. But the critics miss entirely a federalism argument that I believe is nearly-fatal to RLUIPA, namely that RLUIPA is not a permissible exercise of the Commerce Clause power.

RLUIPA does not regulate commerce. It regulates courts in their review of decisions by local governments, which concern land use. Specifically, it directs state and federal courts to subject to strict scrutiny review those land use decisions that substantially burden exercises of religion. And religious exercise is generally performed by claimants engaged in non-commercial activities. Under Morrison and Lopez, which to my knowledge remain good law, the Commerce Clause predicate for RLUIPA seems indefensible….

It’s strange. Federalism in land use law is a hot topic right now…. On several occasions recently I have found myself in a room full of land use scholars, all at least as intelligent and informed as I, who have provided sophisticated, detailed accounts of the local, state, and national interests involved in various land use problems but never stop to consider whether any of their proposals are constitutional. Am I missing something?

MacLeod’s critique has some force. Part of the problem is the nature of specialization in the legal academy. Most land use and property rights scholars are not also constitutional federalism scholars, and vice versa. Naturally, both groups tend to stay within their areas of expertise, which sometimes leads them to ignore relevant issues raised by the other group.

As one of the relatively few academics who does regularly write in both fields, I think that MacLeod’s criticism is a little overstated. Current Supreme Court Commerce Clause doctrine gives Congress virtually unlimited power to regulate “economic activity,” defined very broadly as anything that involves the “production, distribution, and consumption of commodities.” This is broad enough to encompass most, if not quite all, federal efforts at land use regulation. After all, land is a commodity, and land use regulations control its consumption (in the sense of using its resources) and distribution. State and local land use regulations preempted by federal legislation in most cases also qualify as “economic activity,” since they control the use and distribution of land.

I strongly disagree with the Court’s broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause. Perhaps land use scholars should pay more attention to such criticisms (I can always use the extra citations!). At the same time, academic advocates of broad federal power over land use regulations are probably right to assume that most of what they support would pass muster under current Supreme Court doctrine.

There is, however, a different federalism-related flaw in the reasoning of some left-liberal land use scholars. Many of them argue that federalism concerns should lead federal judges to abjure enforcing constitutional property rights against state and local governments. They claim that this kind of federal intervention is undesirable because it interferes with local autonomy and overrides the superior knowledge of local government officials. If this is true, it should count against federal legislative control over land use decisions as well. Yet most of these same critics favor largely unconstrained congressional power to override local land use law.

Conservatives and some libertarians have a similar tension in their thought. If, as we claim, federal power should be strictly limited in order to preserve local diversity, why should federal courts be able to override local land use policies in order to protect property rights? I addressed that potential contradiction in this article.