By Paul Szydlowski
Owning one's own home is at the heart of the American dream - and has been since the framers of the Constitution wrote protections against government seizure of private property for public use into the Fifth Amendment. But rampant abuse of eminent domain, made possible by a liberal interpretation of the "public use" standard, has put that dream at risk. Now the Supreme Court is considering a Connecticut case that may put the power back in the hands of the people. Let us hope they do.
Eminent domain has long been a tool of government in taking private property, but at some point the standard of public "use" became one of public "good." That is a critical distinction, and hopefully one that the court sees fit to reverse.
Public use conjures images of highways, dams, airports and other public facilities owned, operated or managed by a government entity. Public good is a much broader definition, opening the door to the use of eminent domain to grab property for such nebulous purposes as spurring economic growth, or worse, expanding the tax base.
Such a basis for eminent domain puts virtually any property not maximizing its tax-revenue potential at risk of government seizure. All it takes is someone who can promise a higher tax revenue stream from the property. Suddenly, owners of homes, farms, forests and fields are little more than caretakers waiting for someone with a better (meaning higher tax-generating) plan to come along.
And provisions limiting seizure to blighted areas provide little protection. In California, for example, undeveloped desert land was designated "urbanized and blighted" so it could be seized for a Hyundai test track. It's hard to see how God could be accused of blighting the wilderness, but since the track promised millions in tax dollars, who are we to argue?
Public good is far too broad a test for violating a principle as sacred as property rights. We can hope that the Supreme Court shifts the balance of power back in our direction. But if they fail, a simple constitutional amendment could do the trick:
Government shall not seize private property for the purpose of giving, leasing or selling it wholly or in part to another private citizen or entity.
Those 25 words would stop the land grab by government for the benefit of those who care not about the public good, but about personal profit.
The Cincinnati Enquirer: http://news.enquirer.com