Archive | Post-Kelo Reform

California Supreme Court Upholds Law Abolishing Redevelopment Agencies

The California Supreme Court recently issued a ruling upholding the constitutionality of a law abolishing the state’s numerous redevelopment agencies:

The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday against redevelopment agencies, including San Diego’s, and said they cannot remain in business by paying the state a portion of their property tax receipts….

The court was dealing with two laws passed by the Legislature in June to help close the state budget deficit by tapping the redevelopment funds held by redevelopment agencies.

One, AB1X26, abolished the redevelopment agencies and set up a mechanism to shift the redevelopment taxes back to the cities, counties, schools and others.

The second, AB1x27, allowed the agencies to continue but required them to opt in but only by paying pay the state $1.7 billion from their tax revenues this year and about $400 million annually in the future or about 10 percent of their tax receipts….

The second law is unconstitutional, the court said, because the agencies do have a right under Proposition 22, passed last year, to retain local revenues.

“We largely uphold Assembly Bill 1X26 and invalidate Assembly BillX127,” the court said.

And so in an ironic twist of fate, the agencies won their argument that they can keep their money but lost their argument that they can continue to exist.

Although the bill abolishing the redevelopment agencies was adopted primarily for the purpose of alleviating the state’s dire fiscal problems, it also has the beneficial side effect of curtailing eminent domain abuse. As I explained in this post defending the new legislation before it passed, the redevelopment agencies routinely engaged in dubious takings that transferred property to favored interest groups and destroyed more value than they created.

The Institute for Justice – a leading libertarian public interest law firm specializing in eminent domain issues [...]

Continue Reading 19

The Political Battle Over Eminent Domain Reform in Virginia

Virginia was one of several states that enacted a strong eminent domain reform law after the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that it was permissible for government to take private property and transfer it to other private individuals in order to promote economic development. Supporters of the Virginia law are now trying to incorporate it into the state Constitution. But, as the Washington Times reports, they are beginning to encounter resistance from local governments, which have a vested interest in keeping their eminent domain authority as broad as possible [HT: VC reader James Taylor]:

A state constitutional amendment to expand Virginia’s eminent domain laws is meeting local resistance, with the city of Alexandria agreeing to contribute as much as $5,000 for a lobbying firm to help fight the legislation.

The amendment, sponsored for the 2012 General Assembly session by Delegate Rob Bell, Albemarle Republican, attempts to change the Virginia Constitution by updating a law enacted in 2007 that says private property can be taken only when the public interest dominates the private gain, among other conditions.

“The goal is to put [the amendment] into the constitution so that it can’t be tinkered with,” Mr. Bell said….

The amendment passed with wide support during the 2011 General Assembly session, with help from Mr. Bell. It cleared the House by a vote of 83-15 and the Senate by a vote of 35-5.

But to amend the state constitution, the measure must pass again in the assembly before going to the public as a voter referendum on the 2012 ballot.

Despite the broad support, Mr. Bell said, amendment supporters are girding a fight.

“We are not taking anything for granted,” he said….

Mr. Bell said, the impetus was to protect property owners.

“The local governments were certainly

Continue Reading 4

Justice Stevens on Kelo

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, retired Justice John Paul Stevens defended his controversial majority opinion in Kelo v. City of New London, which ruled that it was permissible for government to condemn private property for transfer to private parties in order to promote “economic development.” The Court ruled that this was a permissible “public use” under the Fifth Amendment. Stevens was particularly critical of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s dissenting opinion, which he claims contradicted her earlier opinion in Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff

Stevens’ critique of O’Connor is not entirely without merit. In Midkiff, O’Connor wrote a majority opinion concluding that pretty much any rationale for a taking qualifies as a public use so long as it is “rationally related to a conceivable public purpose.” In Kelo, O’Connor dismissed this as merely “errant language.” But as Ben Barros has shown, it was actually deliberately inserted in the Midkiff opinion (O’Connor refused to take it out even after Justice Lewis Powell warned her that it would license virtually unconstrained takings).

That said, Stevens is wrong to suggest that the Court’s only options were either to overrule Midkiff and Berman v. Parker, or uphold the Kelo takings. Justice O’Connor’s dissent draws a perfectly reasonable distinction beween takings that eliminate some preexisting harm (severe blight in Berman, a supposed oligopoly in the property market in Midkiff), versus those that just seek to create some future public benefit. In the former case, there may be less danger that a taking that transfers property to a private party is just a scheme to benefit the new owner, since the public objective can be achieved simply by terminating the previous harmful use of the land. Many state supreme courts have adopted a similar approach under their [...]

Continue Reading 38

My Op Ed on the Passage of Mississippi Measure 31

Today, I published an op ed in the Daily Caller on the passage of Mississippi referendum Measure 31, an important eminent domain reform law. Here is an excerpt:

The Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London generated a record political backlash. Kelo upheld the condemnation of private property for transfer to other private owners in order to promote “economic development.” The case inspired widespread outrage. Polls show that over 80% of the public opposes economic development takings. As a result, 44 states have enacted eminent domain reform laws that restrict the condemnation of property for the benefit of private interests.

The most recent state to react to Kelo is Mississippi. On Tuesday, Mississippi voters adopted Measure 31 by a decisive 73% to 27% margin. The new law will make taking property for economic development unprofitable by forbidding most transfers of condemned land to a private party for 10 years after condemnation. The measure is a major victory for both property owners and the state’s economy.

Continue Reading 8

Mississippi Measure 31 Passes

Mississippi Measure 31 – the important eminent domain reform initiative – has passed, probably by an overwhelming margin. Although the returns are not yet completely in, the “yes” side has 74% of the vote with almost 65% of precincts reporting. I outlined the case for Measure 31 here.

The overwhelming support for the measure is consistent with results in previous referenda on post-Kelo reform initiatives. No anti-Kelo referendum initiative has ever been defeated except in cases where a ban on Kelo-style “economic development” takings was packaged with some other, much less popular measure (as in the case of California Proposition 98). By contrast, all twelve “clean” anti-Kelo measures have passed, usually by lopsided margins, though a few of them fail to provide genuinely effective protection for property owners. I discuss all the referendum measures enacted up until mid-2009 in this article (see also here for an analysis of a Texas referendum initiative that passed after the article came out).

For reasons I summarized in my last post on Measure 31, reforms adopted by means of citizen-initiated referenda generally provide stronger protection for property rights than those enacted by state legislatures.

UPDATE: I have fixed the incorrect link to the vote tabulation.

UPDATE #2: With 90% of precincts reporting, Measure 31 is winning by a 73-27 margin. That makes it virtually certain that it will not only pass, but do so overwhelmingly. [...]

Continue Reading 27

Vote Yes on Mississippi Measure 31

Tomorrow, Mississippi voters will decide the fate of Measure 31, an important eminent domain reform proposal. Mississippi is one of only seven states that has not enacted any eminent domain reforms at all since the Supreme Court’s decision controversial decision upholding “economic development” takings in Kelo v. City of New London.

Measure 31 would effectively ban economic development takings by forbidding most condemnations that transfer land to private parties during the first ten years after condemnation. Economic development condemnations are often used by powerful interest groups to acquire land for themselves at the expense of the poor and politically weak. In Mississippi, recent condemnations have transferred land to big auto firms such as Nissan and Toyota. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and others claim that these takings are needed to promote economic growth. In reality, economic development condemnations often destroy far more economic value than they create, by wiping out homes, small businesses and schools.

Many of the post-Kelo reform laws enacted in other states fail to impose genuinely effective restrictions on economic development condemnations. Legislators have found various ways to produce bills that have major loopholes. The most common tactic is that of allowing economic development condemnations to continue under the guise of alleviating “blight.” Many states define “blight” so broadly that almost any neighborhood qualifies and is therefore subject to condemnation. Such unlikely areas as downtown Las Vegas and New York’s Times Square have been declared “blighted” for the purpose of justifying condemnations. The New York Court of Appeals recently upheld blight takings justified by a combination of virtually limitless definitions of blight and biased studies conducted by a firm with a severe conflict of interest. Fortunately, Measure 31 avoids this pitfall by forbidding blight takings except in cases where the land in [...]

Continue Reading 24

Speech at University of Mississippi School of Law on Eminent Domain Referendum Initiative Measure 31

On Monday, October 10, I will be speaking at the University of Mississippi School of Law on a Mississippi eminent domain reform referendum initiative, Measure 31 (which is on the ballot this November). The talk is sponsored by the University of Mississippi Federalist Society, and will begun at 12:30 PM in Room 2094.

Mississippi is one of only a handful of states that have not enacted any eminent domain reforms at all since the Supreme Court’s controversial 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which ruled that the Constitution allows government to forcibly transfer private property to other private entities for purposes of “economic development.” Forty-three other states have enacted new laws, though many of them are likely to be ineffective.

Mississippi has a considerable history of dubious takings. Republican Governor Haley Barbour is a prominent advocate of massive condemnations that transfer property to big business interests such as auto manufacturers. In 2009, he vetoed a legislative eminent domain reform billIn this article, I explained why the kinds of economic development takings Barbour supports generally create more economic harm than benefit.

Although Measure 31 is not perfect, it would be a major improvement over current Mississippi law, which allows a wide range of economic development takings for big development projects, and also defines “blight” so broadly that virtually any area can be declared blighted and condemned. The initiative precludes economic development takings almost entirely by forbidding the transfer of condemned property to private interests for at least 10 years after the taking. It does create an exemption to this rule for property that is unfit for human habitation or poses a “direct threat” to public health or safety. But that is much more restrictive than the state’s current blight law. Broad definitions of blight [...]

Continue Reading 7

My US Commission on Civil Rights Testimony on the Impact of Eminent Domain Abuse on Minority Groups

On August 12, I testified at a US Commission on Civil Rights hearing on the “Civil Rights Implications of Eminent Domain Abuse.” The video of the oral testimony is available here. I have now made my more detailed written testimony available online here. Here is the Introduction, which includes a summary of the rest [footnotes omitted]:

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the important issue of the impact of eminent domain on racial and ethnic minorities. I would like to thank Chairman Castro, Vice Chair Thernstrom, and the other commissioners for their interest in this vital question. As President Barack Obama aptly put it, “[o]ur Constitution places the ownership of private property at the very heart of our system of liberty.” The protection of property rights was one of the main purposes for which the Constitution was originally adopted. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has often relegated property rights to second class status, giving them far less protection than that accorded to other constitutional rights. And state and local governments have often violated those rights when it seemed politically advantageous to do so.

Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have suffered from government violations of constitutional property rights. But minority groups have often been disproportionately victimized, sometimes out of racial prejudice and at other times because of their relative political weakness. Minorities are especially likely to be victimized by private to private condemnations that test the limits of the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which requires that property can only be condemned for a “public use.” These include takings allegedly justified by the need to alleviate “blight” and promote “economic development.”

Part I of my testimony briefly surveys the constitutional law of eminent domain and public use. It documents the extent to which the

Continue Reading 57

Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Apologizes to Susette Kelo for his Vote to Uphold the Condemnation of Her Home – But then Lets Himself off the Hook Too Easily

In the Hartford Courant, journalist Jeff Benedict, author of a major account of the Kelo case, reports on an interesting encounter last year, where Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer apologized to Susette Kelo for voting to uphold the the taking of her home for “economic development” [HT: Cory Andrews]:

If a state Supreme Court judge approaches a journalist at a private dinner and says something newsworthy about an important decision, is the journalist free to publish the statement?

I faced that situation at a dinner honoring the Connecticut Supreme Court at the New Haven Lawn Club on May 11, 2010. That night I had delivered the keynote address on the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous 5-4 decision in Kelo v. New London. Susette Kelo was in the audience and I used the occasion to tell her personal story, as documented in my book “Little Pink House.”

Afterward, Susette and I were talking in a small circle of people when we were approached by Justice Richard N. Palmer. Tall and imposing, he is one of the four justices who voted with the 4-3 majority against Susette and her neighbors. Facing me, he said: “Had I known all of what you just told us, I would have voted differently.”

I was speechless. So was Susette. One more vote in her favor by the Connecticut Supreme Court would have changed history. The case probably would not have advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Susette and her neighbors might still be in their homes.

Then Justice Palmer turned to Susette, took her hand and offered a heartfelt apology. Tears trickled down her red cheeks. It was the first time in the 12-year saga that anyone had uttered the words “I’m sorry.”

It was all she could do to whisper the words:

Continue Reading 95

US Commission on Civil Rights Hearing on the Impact of Eminent Domain on Minority Groups

Earlier today, I testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights at a hearing on the “Civil Rights Implications of Eminent Domain Abuse.” The other panelists were Georgetown law professor Peter Byrne, Hilary Shelton of the NAACP, and David Beito, a prominent historian and chair of the Alabama State Advisory Committee to the USSCR. A C-SPAN video of the event is available here.

I have previously written about the negative impact of blight and economic development takings on the minority poor here. I also discuss the issue in my recent article on “Federalism and Property Rights.”, where I point out that the political weakness of the minority poor who are the most common victims of eminent domain weakens the case for leaving property rights issues to the discretion of local political processes. [...]

Continue Reading 9

The Judicial Reaction to Kelo

My article “The Judicial Reaction to Kelo” is now available on SSRN. It is the Introduction to the Albany Government Law Review Symposium on Eminent Domain in the United States, which includes contributions by several well-known eminent domain scholars including my colleague Steve Eagle, Amy Lavine, and David Schultz, among others.

Here is the abstract:

Kelo v. City of New London was one of the most controversial decisions in Supreme Court history, generating a massive political backlash that led 43 states to adopt eminent domain reform laws restricting economic development takings of the kind the Court ruled were constitutional. In addition to the better-known legislative reaction, Kelo was also followed by extensive additional property rights litigation in both federal and state courts. This is the first article to systematically analyze the judicial reaction to Kelo.

Part I briefly summarizes Kelo and its holding. Part II considers state court interpretations of their state constitutional public use clauses since Kelo. Most of these cases have repudiated Kelo, either banning economic development takings outright or significantly constraining them. Part III considers judicial interpretations of Kelo’s “pretext” standard. This is the one area where Kelo might potentially permit nontrivial public use constraints on condemnation. Kelo indicated that condemnations are unconstitutional if the officially stated rationale for the taking is a pretext “for the purpose of conferring a private benefit on a particular private party.” State and lower federal courts have not come to any consensus on what qualifies as a pretextual taking. Nevertheless, several decisions suggest that the pretext standard may have some bite.

Overall, state courts have taken a skeptical view of Kelo, often rejecting it as a guide to the interpretation of their state constitutions. This reaction continues the pre-Kelo trend of increasing judicial protection for property rights at

Continue Reading 13

Allentown, PA Plans to Use Eminent Domain to Take Property for a Hockey Arena

The city of Allentown, Pennsylvania plans to use eminent domain, or at least the threat of it, to forcibly acquire downtown property for the construction of a minor league hockey arena [HT: my father-in-law Bruce Schmauch, a longtime Allentown resident]:

It was drop-the-gloves time in Allentown City Council chambers Wednesday night.

A parade of downtown merchants, their attorneys and supporters laid into city officials, saying their heavy-handed efforts to pressure them into selling their properties under threat of eminent domain to make way for a hockey arena would kill their livelihoods.

That didn’t stop council from voting 6-1 to authorize city officials to use eminent domain to acquire the holdouts….

One after another, merchants said they need more than just a few months to make a life-altering decision on whether to sell their properties and more information about the arena plan itself. They said they were given little information and inadequate offers of relocation assistance.

“Are you going to relocate my business, are you going to take care of my family, are you going to take care of my livelihood?” said Chong Lee, who operates New York Fashions on Hamilton Street.

In March, Pawlowski’s administration began approaching landowners with property in the one-block footprint of the arena between Hamilton, Linden, Seventh and Eighth streets with offers to buy their buildings. About half have cut deals with the city.

Pawlowski hopes to build a sports and entertainment complex centered on an $80 million to $100 million hockey arena that would be home to the minor league Phantoms, the farm team for the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers.

As is often the case, city officials are defending the use of eminent domain on the grounds that it will produce economic benefits for the community. However, as Kelo v. City of New [...]

Continue Reading 33

A Victory for Property Rights in California “Blight” Case

The Institute for Justice has won a victory in an important property rights case in National City California. The trial judge set aside the city’s “blight” designation of a massive area including almost 700 properties. Had the designation survived, it would have enabled the city to condemn any of these properties at will. Here is IJ’s statement on the case, and here is an article in which city officials seek to downplay the damage.

For reasons, I discussed in this post, the National City case is a particularly egregious example of the widespread phenomenon under which local governments use of dubious blight designations to condemn property and transfer it to politically influential developers and other interest groups. The City declared a vast area to be “blighted” on the basis of extremely dubious evidence, and then refused to even make the evidence available for public scrutiny.

The problem of blight condemnations is far from limited to California. In numerous states, broad definitions of “blight” have undermined post-Kelo eminent domain reforms supposedly intended to protect property owners against eminent domain abuse. If pretty much any area can be declared blighted and condemned, no one’s land is safe unless, of course, they have a lot of political clout.

The trial court ruling is only the first step in an ongoing legal battle. California courts are historically very deferential to blight condemnations, and it’s certainly possible that the trial court will be overruled, at least on some issues.

I may have more to say on this subject later. But for now, I must conclude, as my laptop battery is running low, while I wait for my connecting flight to Istanbul at the Vienna airport.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH: I have done pro bono work for the Institute for Justice on [...]

Continue Reading 24

Upcoming Talks in Madison, Wisconsin on the Individual Mandate and Property Rights

This Wednesday, I will be giving two talks in Madison, Wisconsin. One, sponsored by the Federalist Society Lawyers Division, will be at a panel on the Obamacare individual mandate litigation. The other two panelists are Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen (Wisconsin recently became one of the 28 states challenging the mandate in court) and Democratic state representative Jon Richards, who will defend the constitutionality of the mandate. It will be held at 11:30 AM. Logistical details available here.

My second talk will be at 6 PM at the University of Wisconsin Law School, in the Lubar Commons, and is sponsored by the Law School student Federalist Society chapter. It will be about Kelo v. City of New London, post-Kelo eminent domain reform, and recent judicial decisions on takings, especially the two big New York Court of Appeals decisions (the Atlantic Yards and Columbia cases).

VC readers are more than welcome to come to either or both events! [...]

Continue Reading 0

Somin Family Featured in December 2010 Issue of Engage

The December 2010 issue of Engage features not one but two items written by members of the Somin family: a debate on Kelo v. City of New London and eminent domain reform between University of Chicago Law Professor (and former Dean) Saul Levmore and myself; and an article on Title IX and women’s sports written by my wife Alison, who is a special assistant at the US Commission on Civil Rights.

The debate between Dean Levmore and myself was held at the University of Chicago in February. A podcast of the entire debate (including audience questions not reprinted in Engage) is available here.

There is some irony in the fact that Alison is the first of the two us to publish an article about sports, even though I am a big sports fan, and she – to greatly understate the contrast – definitely isn’t. I will have to publish a sports article of my own as soon as possible in order to restore my standing as the resident sports geek in our household.

Although conspiracy theorists (perhaps even Volokh Conspiracy theorists) will never believe it, the appearance of our two pieces in the same issue of Engage is entirely coincidental. The journal editors asked me for permission to publish the debate with Dean Levmore long after Alison’s article was already in the pipeline. But of course that’s exactly what conspiracy-mongers would expect me to say in order to divert attention away from the successful completion of the first stage of the Somin clan’s plan for world domination! [...]

Continue Reading 15