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•  Financial - Legal News


Just five months after an adverse ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court had her in tears, Donna Murr was celebrating Monday after Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill that gives Wisconsin property owners more rights.

The Murr family fought for more than a dozen years, and all the way to the Supreme Court, for the ability to sell undeveloped land next to their cottage along scenic Lake St. Croix in western Wisconsin.

One of two property rights bills Walker signed Monday will give the family the right to sell or build on substandard lots if the lots were legal when they were created.

The Supreme Court ruled against the Murrs in June, but hours later state Rep. Adam Jarchow was on the phone with Donna Murr promising her he would take the fight to the Legislature.

"It's been a long road," Murr said after she and six other family members came to Walker's Capitol office for his signing of the bill Jarchow and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, introduced. "It just felt like a culmination of everything we've worked for, coming to a head today after so many years of struggling and battling."

Donna Murr's parents bought two adjacent lots in the early 1960s and built a cottage on one but left the other vacant as an investment. In 2004, Donna Murr and her siblings wanted to sell the undeveloped lot to help pay for renovations to the cottage, but county officials barred the sale because conservation rules from the 1970s treat the two lots as a single property that can't be divided.

The regulations were intended to prevent overcrowding, soil erosion and water pollution. The county argued before the Supreme Court that not enforcing the rules would undermine its ability to minimize flood damage and maintain property values in the area.

But the family claimed those rules essentially stripped the land of its value and amounted to an uncompensated seizure of the property. They sought compensation for the vacant property they were forbidden to sell. The government argued, and the Supreme Court agreed in June, that it's fair to view the property as a whole and said the family is owed nothing.

Now with the law changed in Wisconsin, the Murr family can sell the vacant section. Donna Murr said she and her siblings will take some time to decide what to do next.




To get the Supreme Court's attention these days, try saying your speech rights are being violated.

Whether the underlying topic is abortion, elections, labor unions or wedding cakes, the First Amendment is starting to dominate the Supreme Court's agenda.

The court on Monday granted three new speech cases, including a challenge to a California law that requires licensed pregnancy-counseling clinics to tell patients they might be eligible for free or discounted abortions. The nine-month term now features six cases, out of 44 total, that turn on the reach of the Constitution's free speech guarantee.

Several will be among the term's most closely watched. They include a high-profile fight over a Colorado baker who refuses to make cakes for same-sex weddings and a challenge to the requirement in some states that public-sector workers pay for the cost of union representation. Both of those cases offer the prospect of ideological divides that could put the court's five Republican appointees in the majority, backing free speech rights.

Free speech also plays a central role in what could be a watershed case involving partisan voting districts. The court's liberals could join with Justice Anthony Kennedy to allow legal challenges to partisan gerrymanders for the first time. During arguments in October, Kennedy suggested those challenges would be based on the First Amendment's protections for speech and free association.

The free speech clause has had a special resonance with the court's conservative wing under Chief Justice John Roberts. The court invoked the First Amendment in the landmark 2010 Citizens United decision, which said corporations could spend unlimited sums on political causes. Writing for the five-justice majority, Kennedy equated federal spending restrictions with using "censorship to control thought."

The court has also backed speech rights with more lopsided majorities in cases involving violent video games, depictions of animal cruelty, abortion-clinic buffer zones and anti-homosexual protesters.



The Washington state Supreme Court is set to hear argument on whether the state has met its constitutional requirement to fully fund K-12 education.

Tuesday morning's hearing is on whether the state should still be held in contempt for lack of progress on satisfying a 2012 ruling that found that school funding was not adequate. Lawmakers needed a funded plan in place this year ahead of a Sept. 1, 2018 deadline the court had set.

The plan approved and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year relies largely on an increase to the statewide property tax that starts next year. The tax increases from $1.89 to $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value, with the increase earmarked for education. The plan — which keeps in place local property tax levies but caps them beginning in 2019 at a lower level— will ultimately raise property taxes for some districts and lower them in others.

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