By Scott Tibbs, July 03, 2005
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." -- Exodus 20:17.
Last week, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that local government may take private property and give it to a developer in order to stimulate economic development. This is a huge shift in constitutional law and the traditional interpretation of the The Fifth Amendment, which declares that private property shall not "be taken for public use, without just compensation." Conservative justices William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined with moderate Sandra Day O'Connor in opposing the majority.
The importance of this ruling cannot be understated. Five people in black robes ("Justices" John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer) have actually declared that government can take away your home and give it to a private developer for his economic benefit. Those five people have declared that "public use" is no longer defined as a highway, courthouse, police station, or other public facility, but any private project that could result in economic growth or increased tax revenue.
In a letter to the editor in the USA Today, Steve Calandrillo (an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle) said "Designating such takings as 'public use' under the Constitution, solely because they increase tax revenue to a city, strains credulity. In truth, using eminent domain to enable a private corporation to maximize profits at homeowners' expense is hardly a social obligation."
Calandrillo is right. What we see here is the greed of the powerful trumping the fundamental liberties of working class people. Unethical private developers use the power of the state to steal private property, and the state willingly complies because they lust after increased tax revenue. This is a perversion of what government is supposed to do. Ideally, the government should make sure that powerful interests do not trample on the rights of the less powerful. In this case, the government is joining with the powerful to oppress the working class.
This case should send shudders through the people of Bloomington, Indiana. It was only three years ago that city government, under the leadership of former Mayor John Fernandez, asked the courts to turn the ST Semicon site "over to Indianapolis-based Mansur Real Estate Services, which would develop a mixed-use retail, apartment and parking project" on the property. Thankfully, a Monroe County judge shot down the city's attempt to take the land and give it to another private developer. John Shean, the attorney for the owners of the ST Semicon site, wrote a guest column explaining that private property rights were critical in the case.
While the Supreme Court's decision would not have changed the results of the Semicon case, this still presents an area of grave concern for the people of Bloomington and Monroe County. The people of Bloomington and Monroe County should challenge local government on this issue. Each and every member of the City and County Councils, as well as the Mayor and County Commissioners, should make a public statement that they will not support and will fight against any attempt to take private property without the consent of the property owner and give it to a private developer.
The outrage over this decision is both non-partisan and non-ideological. Both Republicans and Democrats, on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum, are angry about the Supreme Court's frontal assault on freedom. Conservatives should not attempt to blame this on the Left, as a columnist at michnews.com did on June 27. We have an opportunity to form a broad-based coalition that will secure a huge political victory for property rights, but we risk shattering that coalition if we are taking shots at our allies.
This decision cannot be allowed to stand. Congress must immediately begin work to pass a law forbidding any unit of government from taking private property for any purpose other than a true public works project such as a highway. Once that is done, Congress must pass and the states must ratify a Constitutional amendment limiting takings in the same way. States need not wait for federal action, however, as they already have the power to do the same thing at the state level. In the meantime, one can only hope that a private developer will look at the homes of "Justices" Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer as sites for office complexes.