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Supreme Court Decision Update - Jones v. Flowers

supreme2.jpgToday’s second decision from the Supremes, Jones v. Flowers (PDF of the opinion) has to do with due process rights afforded by the Fourteenth Amendment.

QuizLaw Exclusive: as you read this discussion, it is worth noting that neither opinion issued by the Supremes recognizes the fact that this case involved Arkansas and had individuals named Jones and Flowers, the two women who former President Clinton allegedly had sexual relations with. You can only read that kind of info here at QuizLaw, kids!

Basically, a dude (Jones) owned an Arkansas house that he did not live at anymore, and while the mortgage was paid off, certain property taxes went unpaid. The Commissioner of State Lands mailed a certified letter to the home, noting that the house would be subject to public sale in two years if this problem was not fixed. As nobody was at the house to sign for the certified letter, it was returned to the Commissioner as “unclaimed.” Two years later, the Commissioner put a notice in a local newspaper that the house would be publicly sold and, after there were no bids, negotiated a private sale (after sending another certified letter to the home, which was also returned as “unclaimed”). The new owner had an unlawful detainer notice sent to the home, and this was served on Jones’ daughter, who was at the house. She then told Jones about the sale and he sued the new owner and the Commissioner, arguing that his due process rights were violated because he was never given adequate notice. The trial court and the State Supreme Court both disagreed, finding that the state statute’s notice requirements, which is what the Commissioner followed in this case, complied with due process requirements.

The majority of the Supremes, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts (and joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer) disagreed. The Court held that states have a constitutional obligation to provide adequate notice and, in a situation where a mailed notice of a tax sale is returned, the State has to take other reasonable steps to try to provide the owner notice of an impending sale (as long as it is feasible to take such additional steps). The Court went on to find that, here, there were additional steps that the Commissioner could have reasonably taken and, since such steps were not taken, Jones’ due process rights were violated. Specifically, the Commissioner could have tried sending the letter again by regular mail, so that it would have been left for the resident even if nobody was home to sign for it, or the Commissioner could have posted a notice on the home’s door (however, the Court disagreed with Jones that the Commissioner should have searched the phone book and other government records to find out where he was actually residing).

Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Scalia and Kennedy, arguing that the notice method used by the state clearly satisfies the Due Process Clause, based on earlier Supreme Court precedent. Thomas reasons that the mailing was sufficient because it was sent to the address provided by Jones, himself, and that the State even went beyond the constitutional minimum by publishing notice in the local paper. Regarding the issue of the certified mailing, Thomas argues that the Commissioner did not know, at the time of the mailing, that the notice would not be sufficient, so the majority is essentially requiring the State to take ongoing steps that could become a lengthy and unreasonable process. Thomas also believes that the additional steps the majority proposes the Commissioner could have taken are burdensome and impractical (and just as unlikely to effect actual notice).

Justice Alito was not involved in the decision of this case.