Attorney: Scalia's death could affect Martin's Beach case

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The unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday, is expected to affect the outcomes of a number of cases, including possibly, a dispute over who has access to Martin’s Beach, in Half Moon Bay.

The case is now in the appeals process, and could make its way to the country’s highest court, according to attorney Joe Cotchett.  Cotchett represents the Surfrider Foundation in its dispute with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.  Khosla’s attorneys have indicated they would take the case all the way to the land’s highest court, and Cotchett said given that the case involves an issue of national significance, it’s very possible the high court would hear the case. 

The central question in the Martin’s Beach case is whether the public should have access to beaches on privately-owned land, a “quasi eminent domain case,” as Cotchett describes it.    

“The California Coastal Act has huge implications nationally,” Cotchett said, referring to the 1976 law creating the Coastal Commission which controls development along the state’s coast. “This is a huge issue.”

Cotchett, whose firm has argued dozens of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, said based on precedent and Scalia’s prior rulings, it’s fair to assume Scalia would have sided with the landowner.  Now, Cotchett said it’s clear there aren’t five conservative votes on the court to ensure a victory for Khosla.

“In those cases, when there’s an even split among the justices, the lower court decision would stand,” Cotchett explained.

In 2014, a Superior Court judge ruled that Khosla broke the law when he padlocked a gate and denied the public access to the beach.  Khosla’s attorneys have appealed the decision.  The case would first have to be heard by California’s Supreme Court after an appeals process, which is expected to last 6 to 7 months, Cotchett said.

Scalia’s death will have a more immediate effect on the court’s current term, where a 4-4 split could be reached in a number of cases.  Those cases include: a decision on whether union members who are public employees can be forced to pay union dues for collective bargaining; a case involving restrictions on abortions in Texas; and a case on whether employers should be required to provide coverage for contraception.

Prior to Scalia’s death, those cases were expected to favor conservative rulings, and now would likely result in a split 4-4 vote.

Cotchett said Scalia’s death will have far-reaching effects.  “I don’t think anyone fully understands the ramifications, how this one death is going to affect the future of this country.”