[COMMENTARY] Washington Supreme Court undoes 29 years of property rights protections

By Matt Miller | Goldwater Institute

November 15, 2019

(Editor’s note: Opinion pieces are published for discussion purposes only.)

Yesterday, nearly 30 years of private property rights protections were undone by the Washington Supreme Court in a sweeping decision that explicitly overrules 51 pro-liberty cases under the state Constitution. Those decisions served as a bulwark against governmental overreach, requiring the government to balance the impact of restrictions on one’s property against the public interest those restrictions allegedly served. 

No longer. In its decision in Yim v. City of Seattle, the state Supreme Court held that the burden on individual property owners no longer matters—at all—and that the state Constitution does not, in fact, provide any enhanced protection for private property rights. (The Goldwater Institute submitted an amicus brief in the case, which was cited by the court.) The only thing that matters, going forward, is whether the government’s regulation of your property serves some conceivable governmental interest, even if there is no evidence supporting that claim, and even if the burden on property owners is severe.

In Yim, property owners challenged the city of Seattle’s “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance.” Under the law, landlords who screen applicants for housing are prohibited from asking someone if they have a criminal record, or from denying someone housing on the basis of their criminal record. The property owners argued that it is legitimate to consider someone’s criminal record when deciding whether to rent to them, and that they should be allowed to consider such factors. Indeed, some people may not want to have a convicted criminal living on their property. But Seattle has made this kind of decision illegal, and so the property owners sued under the state and federal Constitutions.

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