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Teacher Gets New Perspective on U.S. Supreme Court: His Own Family's Case

As a veteran high school social science teacher in Minnesota, Mike Murr has taught generations of students about the U.S. Supreme Court and other governmental institutions. On Monday, he sat in the spectator rows of the high court to hear arguments in a case with his name on it.

Murr, a teacher at Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., near St. Paul, joined with four of his six brothers and sisters to challenge a land-use restriction on a Wisconsin summer property.

The family owns two adjacent lots—one with their longtime family cabin on it, the other undeveloped—along the St. Croix River. But, to simplify a complex story, a change in rules by St. Croix County meant the Murrs could no longer sell the undeveloped lot by itself. The family had hoped to use the proceeds—potentially $400,000—to upgrade the summer home on the main lot.

They sued, alleging that the government was engaged in an uncompensated "regulatory taking" of their land in violation of the U.S. Constitution's "takings clause." Their fight was taken up by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif.-based public interest legal organization.

Their case has become a cause for libertarian and conservative groups for whom "takings" by the government are a major issue. Wisconsin and St. Croix County argue that the two lots became one land parcel when the siblings took over common ownership of the lots. The justices had tough questions for both sides Monday and will issue a decision by late June.

"If you can't sell it or build on it, it's a taking of the property," Murr said in an interview over the weekend. The family had 21 people in Washington hoping to attend the March 20 arguments in Murr v. Wisconsin (Case No. 15-214). Murr and his three siblings with an interest in the properties—a retired public employee, a financial planner, and the manager of a drive-in movie theater—had tickets to attend the argument, while the others were going to have to fend for themselves. 

(Two of Murr's siblings gave up their stakes in the Wisconsin properties years ago.)

Murr has been a teacher for 47 years, with Advanced Placement U.S. government one of his main courses. He recently stood before his students as said, "Oh, by the way, your teacher is the petitioner in a case that is going to the U.S. Supreme Court."

"Something that comes up early in the unit [about the court] is that the Supreme Court is the great equalizer," Murr said. "Sometimes legislative bodies take actions that infringe on the rights of the minority."

Although the AP U.S. government curriculum is fairly rigid about which Supreme Court cases to teach, Murr said he and his students often adopt a case pending during each Supreme Court term and follow it through. Those have included Morse v. Frederick, a 2007 decision in which the court upheld the school discipline of a student who displayed a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner outside his high school.

His own family's case has actually been a topic for at least two school years, since the Supreme Court granted review in January 2016 and then delayed hearing arguments for several months beyond the usual rhythm for reasons that it has not explained.

When his classes were learning about Supreme Court appeals—formally called petitions for a writ of certiorari—"I stuck my chest out with pride," Murr said. "I have my name on one." 

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