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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Su Casa Mi Casa

The Supreme Court just decided that it is OK for the government to seize personal, private property for the purpose of using it for private development-- it's eminent domain without any pesky limitations!
The majority held that, just as government has the constitutional power of eminent domain to acquire private property to clear slums or to build roads, bridges, airports and other facilities to benefit the public, it can sometimes do so for private developers if the latters' projects also serve a public good.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said, "Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted governmental function, and there is no principled way of distinguishing it from the other public purposes the court has recognized." The court's ruling is certain to be studied from coast to coast, since similar conflicts between owners of homes and small businesses and development-minded officials have arisen in other locales.
In a bitter dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the majority had created an ominous precedent. "The specter of condemnation hangs over all property," she wrote. "Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

"Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private property, but the fallout from this decision will not be random," she wrote. "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.
Justice Stevens was joined in the majority by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justice O'Connor's fellow dissenters were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
I agree with O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas. (eek!) As I understand it, this ruling has granted the government an unrestricted right to seize and, in essence, destroy a person's home or business in a manner that is so open to exploitation that the argument could be made that nobody really "owns" any property because the government could, in theory, just take it away. I'm not against eminent domain allt he time, but I do think it should have restrictions and limitations. I've read about the case that this decision is based on, and I'm quite surprised. These people just lost their homes so somebody could build "an office building, riverfront hotel and other commercial activities." There is other land nearby, but they wanted this land because it was on the water-- where people have been living their whole lives.

At the very least it would have been nice if they had at least come up with some extra scrutiny, pronged tests or guidelines or something, some way to help weigh the right of the property owner with the public interest. Otherwise what's to stop, say, McDonald's from offering millions to bulldoze some small town and rebuild a new one, turn it into a McDonald's town theme park? Where you can visit the McCity Hall on McNugget Street? Or the Hamburgler Elementary School? Or the Grimace Public Library? All in a town that only allows McDonald's food to be sold, bought or eaten? Where the mayor is some dippy guy in a clown suit? The people of the town wouldn't have any recourse, of course, the government could just decide it would be in everyone's best interest. Your home to the highest corporate bidder!

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