Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Columbia University Takings Case

Sadly, the Supreme Court has refused to hear the Columbia University blight takings case. This New York state supreme court decision was a particularly egregious instance of the abuse of “blight” condemnations to take property that was not blighted in any meaningful sense and transfer it to a powerful private interest group. I wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the Cato Institute, Institute for Justice, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty urging the Court to take the case. As we pointed out in the brief, the case represented a valuable opportunity for the Court to clear up the massive confusion in state and federal courts over the issue of what qualifies as an unconstitutional “pretextual taking” – a condemnation where the official rationale is a mere pretext for a scheme to benefit a private party. Even in Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court emphasized that such pretextual takings are still forbidden by Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment. But it gave very little guidance on the question of what counts as “pretextual.”

I share Megan McArdle’s frustration about the Court’s refusal to take the case. But I do quarrel somewhat with her lament that “this is an issue that only fires up libertarians.” Among the amicus briefs urging the Court to take the case was this one, by liberal Democratic New York state Senator Bill Perkins, a prominent critic of eminent domain abuse in the state. The Becket Fund, one of my own clients in this case, is certainly not a libertarian organization. More broadly, among those strongly opposing the Kelo decision were such liberal groups and activists as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ralph Nader, Howard Dean, and Representative Maxine Waters, as well as various conservatives. It is certainly true that libertarians have been the leaders in the campaign to protect property rights against eminent domain. But concern about the issue is hardly limited to us, and it is not too late to form a broad cross-ideological coalition to address it.