This past week marked the one-year anniversary of a devastating Supreme Court decision that dramatically eroded private property rights across America. The case, Kelo v. New London, expands government’s eminent domain power and has sparked a flurry of new property seizures by local governments. Fortunately, the outcome of the case is also spurring state legislatures to write into law new protections to reduce the effects of the decision. Unfortunately, much more still needs to be done to safeguard private property rights.
Cities have long had the power of eminent domain. In fact, the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly defines and limits this power: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Traditionally, local governments can force private property owners to sell, but they must provide “just” compensation and the end goal must be a “public” use, such as a road, park or other public project.
However, in the Kelo decision the Supreme Court diverged from centuries of precedent by declaring that cities could seize private property and turn it over to another private party, so long as the action was taken in the name of “economic development.” If there was even a possibility that the transfer would result in greater tax revenues, the seizure could be justified, the Court ruled.
In her dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor blasted the decision: “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party… The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”
The decision had immediate and unsurprising results. According to a just-released report by the Institute for Justice, in the wake of Kelo, “local governments threatened eminent domain or condemned at least 5,783 homes, businesses, churches, and other properties so that they could be transferred to another private party.”
Not that long ago our government used to crack down on the Mob when it went around making people offers they couldn’t refuse. Post-Kelo, the liberals on the Supreme Court have given the government the power to run a similar racket.
These Kelo-fed attacks limit the ability that private property once had to work as a barrier to government power; which in turn undermines the rights and liberties of our citizens. States have begun to fortify their constitutions against the takings permitted by the Kelo decision, but the process has only begun, and more action is needed.
Here in North Carolina, the Democratic leadership has succeeded in sending an eminent domain amendment to the House Rules Committee. This has long been considered the graveyard. Therefore, no action is expected this session. In our state this is how the leadership prevents exposing their hands. They avoid taking a vote on important issues by burying the bills and not allow a vote to be taken.
Unfortunately, eminent domain abuse is not the only front in the battle to protect private property rights. Other federal regulations allow the government to take control of part or all of an individual’s property without compensation. For example, the Endangered Species Act penalizes landowners who harbor endangered species on their property by subjecting them to severe land-use restrictions that can ruin them financially.
FreedomWorks is working to turn the outrage over the appalling Kelo decision into the inspiration for reform across the nation, taking action to get the right legislation and state constitutional changes in place. Secure property rights are an indispensable component of economic progress, liberty, and the rule of law. It is now up to our elected officials to protect the rights that five black-robed justices have stripped away.