James J. Kilpatrick

Even the happiest honeymoon may sour in time. So it appeared last week as Chief Justice John Roberts stepped away from his role as Mr. Congeniality. He abandoned his conservative fans and led the court's liberal bloc into a swamp of gooey generosity. We shall pray unceasingly for his recovery.

The case that broke the truce, Jones v. Flowers, was remarkably uninteresting, but it provides an opportunity for mid-term reflection on the justices and their literary style. The facts are a yawn: In 1967 Gary Jones bought a house in Little Rock, Ark. In 1993, for irrelevant reasons, Jones moved out, but he kept up his mortgage payments. By 1997 he had paid off the loan. Meanwhile, a mortgage company had routinely paid his property taxes. After 1997, for whatever reason, nobody paid the taxes.

Authorities in Arkansas tried to notify Jones of his delinquent obligation by sending a certified letter to the old address. No response. In 2002 the state publicly advertised the $80,000 property for sale. An alert investor bought it for $21,000. Jones woke up. He sued to get it back, alleging that the state should have tried harder to find him. He lost in the lower courts. Last week he won in the high court.

It wasn't much of a victory. Roberts was joined in the court's majority opinion by the four Usual Suspects (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer). On the other side, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a sensible dissent. Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joined him. The newest boy on the bloc, Samuel Alito, did not participate.

Speaking for the majority, the chief justice regrettably relied upon a kind of spearmint jurisprudence. His opinion was soft and his reasoning gummy, but the prose tasted, as they say, good. He conceded that by sending the certified letter and publicly advertising the sale, the state had made a "reasonable" effort to alert Jones. The state's procedure was supported by precedents as old as 1950 and as recent as 2002. But under the circumstances, Roberts mused, a merely "reasonable" effort was not enough. "Due process requires the government to do something more ..."

The chief justice offered a few suggestions for how this "something more" could have been accomplished. Then he firmly concluded: "Mr. Jones should have been more diligent with respect to his property, no question." People must pay their taxes, and government may seize the property of tax delinquents. But due process requires adequate notice of an impending taking, and the state's notice was not adequate.

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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