WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said yesterday that people who lose state lawsuits claiming the government improperly took their property cannot count on federal courts for help.
Land rights is a major issue at the high court this year, and so far the justices have made it tougher for people to win lawsuits claiming that local and state laws amount to an unconstitutional ''taking."
The biggest of three cases dealing with government authority to seize properties, from New London, Conn., will be decided within the next week, before the Supreme Court begins a three-month break.
In yesterday's decision, the justices ruled against a historic San Francisco hotel that wanted to convert rooms previously designated for permanent residents to accommodate tourists.
The city had restrictions on hotel changes, as part of an ordinance intended to preserve housing for the poor, disabled, and elderly.
When the San Remo Hotel was ordered to pay $567,000, it sued in state court and narrowly lost at the California Supreme Court in 2002. Then-California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown supported the hotel and wrote a strongly worded dissent, used by some senators in opposing her recent elevation to a federal appeals court.
''Theft is theft even when the government approves of the thievery," she wrote. ''Turning a democracy into a kleptocracy does not enhance the stature of the thieves, it only diminishes the legitimacy of the government."
There were no harsh words in yesterday's 9-0 Supreme Court ruling that found the 62-room hotel could not pursue a federal case because state courts had already addressed all the issues.
''This is a big victory for local governments," said Nicole Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in a rare admission, wrote in a concurring opinion that he and his colleagues may have made a mistake 20 years ago when they told people in such property fights that they must exhaust state court options before filing federal suits.
Rehnquist, who has cancer and may retire soon, seemed to encourage a challenger to step forward and give the Supreme Court an opportunity to reconsider.
Joined by three other conservative justices, Rehnquist said, ''Further reflection and experience lead me to think that the justifications for its state-litigation requirement are suspect, while its impact on takings plaintiffs is dramatic."
Eric Claeys, a former Rehnquist clerk who is now a law professor at Saint Louis University, said state court fights in takings claims can last for years.
The ruling was the second in a land rights case. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that Hawaii did not overstep its authority in putting caps on the rent paid by dealer-run gas stations, part of an effort to control gas costs.
The one pending land rights case will determine when local officials may take people's homes and businesses through eminent domain to make way for economic development projects like shopping malls.