Eminent Domain Issue Re-visited

A commenter on one of my post brought up the Supreme Courts latest ruling on eminent domain. I blog on this a year ago when the Supreme Court delivered a ruling that allowed private property to be taken by the state and then given to a developer to develop for private use. (Reference my blog on the ruling: ( Nov. 6, 2005 - Bad judgment on the Part of the US Supreme Court)

I had no trouble with the law governing eminent domain since as I understood the Founding Fathers included these strictures in the Constitution as a protection of the public. My understanding was that the government could take private property for use ONLY for the PUBLIC good and after appropriate compensation to the owners. Public good to me meant mainly roads and bridges and perhaps government owned buildings if there was a pressing need to build on that particular site. What I didn’t know was that the courts had ruled in many cases where private property was indeed taken for private development thus setting a great deal of precedence for the Court’s ruling in Kelso vs. City of New London, Conn.

“As a legal matter, the Constitution says the government can only take private property for a ''public use," but more than a century of precedent interprets that requirement to mean government may use eminent domain for a ''public purpose." Just as government took private property to promote private railroads and mills a century ago, it has done so in recent decades to promote commercial building to revitalize urban areas, from the Inner Harbor in Baltimore to Lincoln Center in New York City. New London's effort to address its severe economic distress by using eminent domain for private waterfront development seemed well within bounds to the court's majority, even though it involved taking homes in good repair. Nevertheless, the decision came as a shock to many unfamiliar with constitutional case law, generating a groundswell of opposition spanning the usual left-right divide.”**

I wasn’t alone in my outrage or my lack of knowledge of previous court rulings that I feel supplanted the intent of the Founding Fathers because people all over the country contacted their representatives and demanded they do something about this travesty. This seemed to be a no brainer because anything both the liberal NAACP and the conservative Institute for Justice both oppose is surely meant for an early grave. Ahhhhh. But think again, and remember we are asking politicians to do the right thing here! Our Representatives in the House took note of the public’s concerns and passed “… the Property Rights Protection Act of 2005” (H.R. 4128) by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 376-38. This bill would counter the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s universally reviled decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which allows state and local governments to use eminent domain to seize property for private development on the mere possibility of increased tax revenue or jobs. H.R. 4128 would discourage this by withdrawing federal economic development funding for two years from any local government that uses eminent domain for economic development. This popular legislation was sponsored in the House by Representatives Sensenbrenner, Conyers, Waters, Bonilla and many others. Reform was championed in the Senate by Senator John Cornyn but became mired in the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than a year. To help push through the reform, Senator James Inhofe introduced an identical bill (S. 3873) to H.R. 4128 on the floor of the Senate in September. That bill languished and failed to pass.” *** Make note: our Senators did not allow a vote on the bill so that none of the brave souls would have to expose their allegiance to big business by voting against the interest of big business and right for the public at large. Its overwhelming bipartisan public popularity which would save private property from big business private enterprise was simply not in the interest of the corporations our Senators are beholden to for their large campaign donations. So they merely let it fade out of sight and with any luck, out of mind.

There are also 14 states so far who have passed bills to curb the Supreme Court’s ruling. South Dakota however is the only one that is really effective in that it limits governments from using eminent domain to condemn property for anything but government owned roads, schools and air ports. The other state legislatures bills by using vague language throw a sop to the public, but certainly do not restrain private enterprises profit even if it means taking an individuals home.

One example tells the story of state politician trying to hoodwink the public: “Texas's law contains strong pro-property rights rhetoric before providing that taking private property and handing it to private developers is just fine so long as the private benefit results incidentally from community development or urban renewal efforts aimed at improving ''blighted areas." Another section permits eminent domain in connection with a pending stadium project for the Dallas Cowboys, while yet another allows it for constructing a museum.” **

Other than the strict South Dakota law even most of the “better” state laws enacted to protect private property allow eminent domain in the case of so called “blighted areas”. This use of seizing property in “blighted areas” leaves a very large hole in the laws because “blighted” is in the eye of the beholder. Stable thriving areas in a city that are merely poor or older but in a large corporations or the city governments way can be condemned and displace people who have no place else to go because they didn’t receive enough money for their property to purchase homes in any other part of the city.

Legislatures really must take another look at the problems related to the governments use of eminent domain and insure that people who live in these poorer “blighted” areas of cities are protected if they are going to allow these exceptions to remain a part of their laws. You will note I specified “people who live in” these blighted areas are to be protected where or not they are the property owners. This distinction needs to be made because often the inhabited buildings in blighted areas are owned by slum lords who rent the buildings and they themselves live elsewhere. At present when properties are condemned the renters of the property are just thrown out. Many then become homeless because they haven’t the means to rent another apartment with the required deposits and fees. These people need to be protected and helped, and these provisions must be made part of the laws.

It saddens me to admit that altho our politicians “must“, or really should, protect people who are harmed by eminent domain seizures, but I don’t have any hopes that they will as long politicians need to sell themselves and their integrity in order to get the funds to run for election and re-election. BB

PS: A bit of trivia concerning buying votes: It is said that at George Washington’s first run for public office he refused to purchase a keg of spirits for the voters to partake of before casting their vote. He lost that election. Thereafter he always provided the requisite keg and never again lost an election! BB



**April 16, 2006 http://www.boston.com http://www.castlecoalition.org/ http://www.castlecoalition.org/media/releases/12_11_06pr.html?actionID=286