3/14/2005

Supreme Court should rein in eminent domain: Liberty (MO) Sun-News, 3/10/05

Opinions

Under this nation's original property law, the Fifth Amendment, "A man's home is his castle" carried the weight of Scripture, but present laws suggest, "A person's home is his government's, which can buy and sell that home to anyone for a profit."

The situation is an injustice perpetrated upon Northlanders and other people nationwide by the government's unrestrained, oppressive use of eminent domain.

People who used to live around Kansas City International Airport learned that fact the hard way.

Liberty Triangle businesses, churches, charities and home owners are now learning that fact the hard way, too.

When New London, Conn., residents were about to learn the hard way, they rebelled. They united against letting city government bulldoze their houses for private development. They carried their fight to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last week heard both sides of the issue and could render a decision affecting all property owners by fall.

Taking the city's side are groups such as the National League of Cities. They argue that for cities to earn more income to benefit all citizens, cities must be able to take and turn over citizens' houses to private developers.

The argument makes sense at one level. Only a slumlord would defend run-down tenements - buildings with leaky roofs, faulty wiring and rats. Such buildings endanger a community and should be replaced by tax-producing houses or businesses. The law allowed such condemnations for decades and raised little concern until 1954 when the Supreme Court slightly adjusted the Fifth Amendment prohibition against the government's ability to snatch one person's private land for another person's private profit. The court granted cities the right to take non-blighted land, in an otherwise blighted area, so that private businesses could proceed with "urban renewal."

After that subtle change, some state courts and legislatures went wild, eroding the public's right to land ownership - a right Colonists fought for and wrote into the Constitution because the British, also, had a nasty, self-serving habit of taking private property. Five decades of tinkering by the government, and for the government, have brought eminent domain laws to their present tyrannical status, with varying degrees of "taking" allowed from state to state.

In Missouri, ranked by the Institute for Justice as one of the worst states for abusing private property owners, almost anything goes. Missouri courts find the slightest pretext sufficient for a city to take anyone's house, anyone's business. As an example, Kansas City grabbed private land around the airport in the mid-1990s. The city had no plan for how to use the land, just a foggy notion that maybe, someday, the land might be useful. Based on that quicksand foundation, the Missouri Court of Appeals in 1998 stomped on individual property rights and allowed the city to take the land.

"In Missouri, the (eminent domain) challenges have gone nowhere in the state court system, because the courts view it as a legislative decision and the legislature has invested the 'local legislatures' with virtually absolute discretion to declare something blighted as long as they follow the procedures," Stanley Wallach, chairman of the Missouri Bar's Eminent Domain Law Committee, told the Sun.

This means a city may offer a family $200,000 for a house, but if the family believes the house is worth $400,000, too bad for the family. An owner may dicker with city representatives over price, but if the two sides reach an impasse, the city wins. The average person might think, "I'd sue." But as Wallach observed, in all such cases the city has the upper hand because Missouri's court rulings are crystal clear - government rights trump individual rights.

Lopsided favoritism of the government vs. the public's Fifth Amendment right to protection from eminent domain can hurt a community. The Spirit of Liberty building in the Triangle is a case in point. The city wants to raze the building. Doing so would mean In As Much and Love INC, church-affiliated ministries that help the poor, would be left homeless. The situation is tragic and ironic. Liberty City Council, in a bid to help the community, wants to demolish a building that helps the community. Liberty City Council, to raise more tax dollars, has forced community members to start raising money, too - about $3 million to build a new home for the two ministries, which otherwise could be tossed into the street.

Eminent domain makes sense as a means to remove dangerous buildings, and for public projects such as highway construction, but the present use of eminent domain is out of control. According to the Institute for Justice in Washington, between 1998 and 2002, local governments either used or threatened to use eminent domain an incredible 10,000 times.

Unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise, there is no end in sight for what cities can and will do to take private property - homes, businesses, churches. No end nationally. No end in Missouri. No end in Kansas City. No end in Liberty. None.

The Supreme Court, which started on the slippery path of eroding the public's rights in 1954, should reverse the eminent domain trend not only for New London property owners, but for American property owners everywhere.


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