The California Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the state's "quick take" eminent domain process in which a public agency may take ownership of a property before a trial on final compensation for the property owner.

The case was brought by Azusa Pacific University. In October 2000, Mt. San Jacinto Community College District commenced an eminent domain action to acquire 30 acres owned by Azusa Pacific in Riverside County. Two months later, the district deposited $1.789 million into court as probable compensation and applied for a prejudgment order of possession — a quick take. The court approved and the district took possession in January 2002.

The university disputed the $1.789 million figure and the trial court eventually ruled that the value should be set to coincide with the start of the trial on the question of valuation, which was in December 2004. Between 2000 and 2004, property values increased dramatically. An appellate court reversed the trial court and said the date of valuation was December 2000, when the district deposited the funds for a quick take.

At the state Supreme Court, Azusa Pacific argued that the quick take process put the university in the untenable position of having to choose between constitutional rights. The university could withdraw the deposited funds but, under the law, would then be precluded from litigating the legality of the taking itself. If it did not withdraw the funds, the university could litigate the taking, but the district would still have ownership of the property, meaning the university would have neither its property nor just compensation.

But a unanimous state Supreme Court ruled that the process is constitutional.

"The only constitutional limitations on the right of eminent domain are that the taking be for a public use, and that just compensation be paid," Justice Ming Chin wrote for the court. "The university does not claim that the condemnation is not for a public use. In addition, [Code of Civil Procedure] § 1255.260 does not require waiving a claim for greater compensation with withdrawal of the deposit. Thus, the university is not being forced to waive a constitutional right."

"The condemner has a right to immediate possession of the property," Chin continued, "and made a deposit of probable compensation. The owner had the right immediately to withdraw that deposit. The existence of conditions on withdrawal on the owner's solely statutory right to further litigate the legality of the taking does not deny the owner just compensation."

The court also upheld the earlier valuation date. If valuation were delayed, the court noted, "owners in a rising real estate market would have a considerable incentive to delay proceedings."

The Case:
Mt. San Jacinto Community College District v. Superior Court of Riverside County, No. S132251, 2007 DJDAR 2399. Filed February 22, 2007.
The Lawyers:
For the district: David Hubbard, Redwine & Sherrill, (951) 684-2520.
For Azusa Pacific University: Michael Berger, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, (310) 312-4000.