“No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”—Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Supreme Court’s narrow 5-4 majority has an interesting interpretation of ‘public use.’
Throughout the history of the United States, our governments (local, state, and federal) have had the right to take private property for the ‘greater good.’ This has been called ‘eminent domain.’ Traditionally, use of eminent domain has been limited to particular situations where the community will be unquestionably better-off for it and there are no practical alternatives—a road needs to be widened, a ‘blighted’ (read: slum) community needs to be replaced, etc.
But eminent domain has been, and continues to be, misused. Its use to steal property for the purposes of building stadiums is particularly egregious and common (and will probably be used to build DC’s new stadium for the Washington Nationals).
The city of New London, Connecticut also thought it had a great way to take advantage of eminent domain. They wanted to allow private developers to build a privately-owned mall which would presumably have space leased to private companies on land that just happened to have homes on it. Some of those homeowners wouldn’t sell, so New London took their land through eminent domain.
The homeowners, understandably a bit angry, brought this flagrant misuse of eminent domain power into the courts and eventually to the United States Supreme Court.
On Thursday, the Court made its ruling. After they finished throwing out centuries of property-rights law and tradition, local governments now have the constitutional authority to appropriate your personal property for the benefit of private industry.
It’s a brave, new world.
If this doesn’t bother you, you haven’t been paying enough attention. James Madison once said, “A man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights. Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.” He was right. The ownership and security of land and property has been a fundamental right in this country throughout its existence, although it has been whittled away for decades now. Today, it is clear that your rights to ‘life, liberty, and property’ only exist at your local politicians’ discretion.
I can’t speak for everybody, but I don’t necessarily trust the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to value individual property—say, a set of single-family homes on 1-acre lots—over the potential new tax income from a new mall or a dense apartment complex. I definitely don’t think it should be up to them to decide when (and at what price) a citizen is ready to sell what belongs to him.
What baffles me most is that there should be no political support for eminent domain in these cases. Conservatives should be appalled that personal property is being superseded by power-hungry governments under the guise of a dubious, undefined ‘greater good.’ Liberals should be deeply offended that property is being stolen from the people—often poor, disadvantaged people—to be given to corporate giants like Pfizer (in New London) or to stadiums that serve a multi-billion dollar sports machine more than they serve the community.
But, you know what they say—power corrupts. Many Republicans and Democrats (meaning both parties’ general membership) might be against eminent domain abuses and yesterday’s bizarre Supreme Court ruling, but the politicians that build malls and stadiums on top of people’s homes are members of those parties just the same. Most remain silent, and most will continue to remain silent, because they cannot reconcile our right to property with their own lust for power.
Shame on the Supreme Court for disregarding the text of the Fifth Amendment and generating fictional government powers from the bench. Shame on the Supreme Court for allowing the interests of corporations and politicians to supersede the long-held property rights of individuals. Shame. . . .