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United States v. Craft: Creating a Federal Common Law of Property?

By Andrew S. Gold
October 01, 2002
The meaning of “property” in the federal context is not always clear—and courts have given the term vastly different meanings and scope depending on whether the Due Process Clause or Takings Clause or at issue. In many cases, however, the existence of property— as federally or constitutionally defined— is dependent on rights created by state law. As expressed in Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth:

     Property rights… are not created by the Constitution.
     Rather, they are created and their dimensions defined
     by existing rules or understandings that stem from an
     independent source such as state law—rules or understandings
     that secure certain benefits and that
     support claims of entitlement to those benefits.

This dependence on independent sources to delimit the federal understanding of property is a longstanding part of our legal tradition. It recognizes the role of state law in the federal system, and allows for some objective standard as to what federal property may be in specific cases.