Court Opinions: US Supreme Court Opinions for April 16

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Rudisill v. McDonough

Since World War II, the federal government has provided educational assistance to servicemembers with qualifying service through various GI bills. Typically, GI bills provide 36 months of educational benefits each, up to a cap of 48 months in cases where servicemembers become eligible for benefits under more than one GI bill. This case concerns two GI bills with overlapping service periods — the Montgomery GI Bill Act of 1984 (covering service between 1985 and 2030) and the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 (covering service on or after September 11, 2001).

James Rudisill enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2000 and served eight years over three separate periods of military service. He became entitled to Montgomery Bill benefits as a result of his first period of service. Rudisill earned an undergraduate degree and used 25 months and 14 days of Montgomery benefits to finance his education. Through his subsequent periods of service, Rudisill also became entitled to more generous educational benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Rudisill sought to use his Post-9/11 benefits to finance a graduate degree. Rudisill understood such benefits would be limited to 22 months and 16 days under the 48-month aggregate-benefits cap. But the government informed Rudisill he was only eligible for 10 months and 16 days of Post-9/11 benefits (the length of his unused Montgomery benefits) due to a provision in the Post-9/11 Bill designed to coordinate benefits for those servicemembers meeting the criteria for both Montgomery benefits and Post-9/11 benefits. Section 3327 provides that a servicemember meeting the criteria for both GI bills can elect to swap Montgomery benefits for the more generous Post-9/11 benefits, up to a total of 36 months of benefits.

Ultimately, the federal circuit, sitting en banc, sided with the government, explaining that when Rudisill sought to use his Post-9/11 benefits, he had made an “election” under Section 3327(a)(1) to swap his Montgomery benefits for Post 9/11 benefits, making his benefits subject to Section 3327(d)(2)’s 36-month limit.

The U.S. Supreme Court held servicemembers who, through separate periods of service, accrue educational benefits under both the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bills may use either one, in any order, up to Section 3695(a)’s 48-month aggregate-benefits cap. 

The high court found Rudisill earned two separate entitlements to educational benefits, one per the Montgomery GI Bill and the other per the Post-9/11 GI Bill, by serving in the military for nearly eight years over three separate periods. The Supreme Court noted that focusing on these two separate benefits entitlements — rather than on his periods of service — leads to two relevant observations about the statute. First, the statute establishes a baseline rule that, absent some other limitation, the VA “shall pay” a veteran’s benefits. Second, Congress has plainly delineated certain durational limits on these benefits entitlements; i.e., each program entitles the recipient to up to 36 months of benefits, and both are subject to Section 3695’s 48-month aggregate-benefits cap.

The court also found Section 3322(d), which creates a mechanism for certain servicemembers to “coordinate” their benefits, doesn’t limit Rudisill’s entitlement. First, the high court explained, nothing in the statute imposes a duty for any veteran to “coordinate” entitlements in order to receive benefits. Section 3322(d) doesn’t mention the receipt of benefits but addresses instead the “coordination of entitlement.” Because Rudisill is already entitled to two separate benefits, he has no need to coordinate any entitlement under Section 3327. 

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment and remanded the case.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson delivered the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined. Kavanaugh filed a concurring opinion, in which Barrett joined. Justice  Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Samuel Alito Jr. joined. 

DeVillier v. Texas

Richard DeVillier and more than 120 other petitioners own property north of U. S. Interstate Highway 10 between Houston and Beaumont, Texas. The dispute here arose after Texas took action to use portions of I–10 as a flood evacuation route, installing a roughly 3-foot-tall barrier along the highway median to act as a dam. 

When subsequent hurricanes and storms brought heavy rainfall, the median barrier performed as intended, keeping the south side of the highway open. But it also flooded petitioners’ land to the north, causing significant damage to their property. DeVillier filed suit in Texas state court. He alleged that by building the median barrier and using his property to store stormwater, Texas had effected a taking of his property for which the state must pay just compensation. Other property owners filed similar suits. Texas removed the cases to federal court, where they were consolidated into a single proceeding with one operative complaint. The operative complaint includes inverse-condemnation claims under both the Texas Constitution and the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment. Texas moved to dismiss the federal inverse-condemnation claim, arguing that a plaintiff has no cause of action arising directly under the takings clause. The district court denied Texas’ motion, concluding a property owner may sue a state directly under the takings clause. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding “that the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment does not provide a right of action for takings claims against a state.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court held DeVillier and the other property owners should be permitted to pursue their claims under the takings clause through the cause of action available under Texas law. The takings clause of the Fifth Amendment states: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The court has explained that “a property owner acquires an irrevocable right to just compensation immediately upon a taking” “[b]ecause of ‘the self-executing character’ of the Takings Clause ‘with respect to compensation.’” 

The question here concerns the procedural vehicle by which a property owner may seek to vindicate that right. 

The high court explained Constitutional rights don’t typically come with a built-in cause of action to allow for private enforcement in courts, so they are asserted offensively pursuant to an independent cause of action designed for that purpose. DeVillier relies on First English Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale v. County of Los Angeles and other cases to argue the takings clause creates, by its own right, a cause of action authorizing suits for just compensation. 

But the Supreme Court noted those cases don’t directly confront whether the takings clause provides a cause of action. Texas state law does provide an inverse-condemnation cause of action by which property owners may seek just compensation against the state based on both the Texas Constitution and the takings clause. 

The high court determined this case doesn’t present the circumstance in which a property owner has no cause of action to seek just compensation. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case so DeVillier and the other property owners may proceed through the cause of action available under Texas law. 

Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the unanimous opinion.

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