Rule of Law

D.C. Memo: Minnesota lawmakers at the center of GOP debt-relief bill drama

A 94-year-old Minnesota woman gets her day in court

The Supreme Court this week seems inclined to agree with a with a 94-year-old woman who said Hennepin County unfairly kept the equity she had in a condominium after the county sold it for back taxes.

The justices heard oral arguments in Tyler v. Hennepin County, a case brought by property rights advocates who say the state’s forfeiture law is unconstitutional.

During the lengthy oral arguments on Wednesday, both conservative and liberal justices seemed to agree.

“Are there any limits?” Justice Elena Kagan asked. “I mean, $5,000 tax debt, $5 million house. Take the house, don’t give back the rest?”

Geraldine Tyler lived for a decade in a one-bedroom condominium in Hennepin County. But she moved out of her home in 2010, while in her 80s, to live in an apartment in a senior community. While she lived in her condo, she paid her property taxes in a timely fashion. But after she left, she stopped paying those taxes.

By 2015, Tyler’s delinquent property taxes totaled $2,311, and penalties, costs and interest added an additional $12,689, for a total property-tax debt of $15,000. Hennepin County eventually seized Tyler’s condo and sold it for $40,000, keeping all the proceeds from the sale.

Minnesota and nine other states allow the sale of property for back taxes without compensating owners for the surplus “excess equity” that sale might generate. In most states, the surplus proceeds from such sales are returned to the owner.

The Supreme Court must now decide whether these states forfeiture laws violate the “takings” clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Tyler’s case attracted a broad coalition of ideological support of Tyler. Friend of the court briefs were filed by progressive groups, including the Constitutional Accountability Center and Public Citizen, as well as conservative, property rights advocates such as the Cato institute — which file its brief in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union – and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Even the Biden administration weighted in on Tyler’s side.