Supreme Court to Rule on Eminent Domain Limits
A fight by homeowners to save their New London, Connecticut, neighborhood from city officials and private developers — an important property rights case with an unusual twist — will reach the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. At issue is whether governments can forcibly seize homes and businesses, for private economic development. Under a practice known as eminent domain, a person’s property may be condemned and the land converted for a greater “public use.” It has traditionally been employed to eliminate slums, or to build highways, schools or other public works.
The New London case tests the muscle of local and state governments to raise what they see as much-needed revenue, which they argue serves a greater “public purpose.” Legal analysts said they see the case as having major implications nationwide in property rights and redevelopment issues. Eminent domain is a practice indirectly sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Amendment’s protection against unwarranted government interference adds a caveat: “Nor shall property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
The Supreme Court last addressed the issue in 1954, allowing private property to be seized in so-called distressed or blighted neighborhoods. Since then, various lower courts have said the mere opportunity to create jobs or generate tax revenue is enough to apply eminent domain.
I’m rather uneasy about the eminent domain power, period, given that the sanctity of private property is a founding principle of the Republic. Still, I’m not particularly upset about government’s ability to force property owners to sell land needed to build roads and similar infrastructure, so long as the compensation is above market value. The idea that government has the right to confiscate property simply because it prefers a different private use for it–specifically, one that would generate more tax revenue–is simply outrageous. One hopes the Court stops this abuse of government authority.