Archive | Post-Kelo Reform

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 [...]

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New Survey Data on Public Attitudes Towards Kelo and Economic Development Takings

Kelo v. City of New London, which ruled that government has the power to forcibly transfer property from one private owner to another in order to promote “economic development,” was one of the most unpopular decisions in the history of the Supreme Court. Polls conducted soon after the decision was issued in 2005 found that over 80% of the public opposed it.

Recent survey data compiled by Stephen Ansolabehere and Nathaniel Persily as part of a general study of public attitudes on constitutional issues sheds new light on public attitudes towards Kelo. The study, which is based on a poll taken in July 2009, finds that the public remains just as strongly opposed to economic development takings as in 2005. But it also indicates considerable public ignorance about the Court’s decision.

Question 215 in the 2009 survey asked respondents the following:

Governments sometimes use the power of eminent domain to acquire a person’s property at a fair market price for other uses. Recently, a local government transferred someone’s property to private developers whose commercial projects could benefit the local economy. Do you think the local government should be able to use eminent domain for this purpose or not?

This wording is quite favorable to the pro-Kelo side. It mentions the rationale for the taking (“benefit [to] the local economy”) and notes that the owners will get a “fair market price.” Respondents who are not experts in this field might believe that the latter actually means a “fair price” that takes account of the full extent of the owners’ losses, even though it only actually means “fair market value,” which is often not enough to fully compensate owners for the loss of “subjective value.” On the other hand, the question doesn’t mention any of the arguments against such [...]

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Our Amicus Brief Urging the Supreme Court to hear the Columbia University “Blight” Takings Case

I recently wrote an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the Columbia University blight takings case, on behalf of the Institute for Justice (the public interest law firm that litigated Kelo v. City of New London, among many other important property rights cases), The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the Cato Institute. The brief is available here. As I explained in this post, the New York Court of Appeals’ decision in the Columbia case is an extreme example of a very common problem: the use of dubious “blight” condemnations to transfer property from the politically weak to the locally powerful interest groups – in this case a major university.

The case also represents an important opportunity for the Court to address a major unresolved issue in eminent domain law. In Kelo, the majority ruled that “economic development” counts as a public use that justifies the use of eminent domain to transfer property to private parties. But the Court also noted that “pretextual” takings – condemnations where the official rationale is “a mere pretext…. when [the] actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit” – are unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the Court was extremely unclear about what qualifies as a pretextual taking. As we explain in Part I of the brief, lower federal courts and state supreme courts have been all over the map in trying to develop rules for what counts as a pretext. The New York Court of Appeals decision in the Columbia case is at an extreme end of a continuum, defining pretext so narrowly that it is almost impossible to imagine a successful pretext case. Other courts – including the supreme courts of Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia, and the federal Ninth Circuit – have defined pretext more [...]

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Talk on Kelo and Eminent Domain at Lewis & Clark Law School

For those who might be interested, I will be speaking at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon tomorrow. The topic is my work on Kelo v. City of New London and post-Kelo eminent domain reform. I will also touch briefly on post-Kelo developments in state constitutional law on public use issues, including the Atlantic Yards and Columbia University decisions, the two important recent eminent domain cases decided by the New York Court of Appeals.

The talk will start at noon in Room 2. [...]

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“Blight” Condemnations in Alabama

Historian David Beito, chair of the Alabama Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, has an interesting post documenting the abuse of “blight” condemnations in Montgomery, Alabama:

“[E]minent domain through the back door” has become commonplace in Montgomery, the cradle of the modern civil rights movement. Under this system, Montgomery has demolished homes without the normal due process of conventional eminent domainand often gives little notice. The city alleges that these homes are “blighted” but, as the story on Jimmy McCall shows, at least some are in excellent repeir.

Typically, under eminent domain through the back door, the city of Montgomery bills the owner for the cost of demolition and he or she is left with an essentially worthless property. The victims are often low-income blacks, many of home live near or in Rosa Parks old neighborhood.

Beito and I described the broader implications of these kinds of takings in this 2008 op ed. Unfortunately, abusive blight takings are not confined to Alabama. They are a serious problem in many parts of the country. For example, New York’s highest court recently upheld two such condemnations in the Atlantic Yards and Columbia cases. Unlike many other states, Alabama has actually passed a fairly strong post-Kelo eminent domain reform law that defines blight relatively narrowly and forbids condemnations that transfer land to private owners for pure “economic development” purposes (see my analysis of that law and other states’ reforms this article). Unfortunately, sometimes the law on the books is one thing and enforcement is another. [...]

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Universities and Eminent Domain

In Kaur v. New York Urban Development Corporation, its recent decision upholding the condemnation of property for transfer to Columbia University, the New York Court of Appeals claimed that the use of eminent domain to transfer land to a private university is more defensible than its use to transfer land to commercial corporations, as in the Atlantic Yards case:

Unlike the [New Jersey] Nets basketball franchise [one of the key beneficiaries of the Atlantic Yards takings], Columbia University, though private, operates as a non-profit educational corporation. Thus, the concern that a private enterprise will be profiting through eminent domain is not present. Rather, the purpose of the Project is unquestionably to promote education and academic research while providing public benefits to the local community. Indeed, the advancement of higher education is the quintessential example of a “civic purpose”…. It is fundamental that education and the expansion of knowledge are pivotal government interests.

I think this line of argument is seriously flawed. I tried to explain why in one of my earliest posts on the Columbia University takings back in 2006:

…Columbia President Lee Bollinger and [others] defend the use of eminent domain to transfer property to universities on the ground that universities create “public benefits.” While universities do provide important benefits to society, this does not justify allowing them to condemn property.

Most of the benefits provided by universities are “private goods” that are fully captured by their students and faculty. For example, going to college greatly increases a student’s earning prospects, but that student will himself capture the benefits. Basic economics shows that there is no need for government subsidies for these kinds of private goods.

Universities do also provide some “public goods” – benefits to society that the university, its faculty, and its students cannot fully

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New York High Court Upholds Columbia University Takings

In today’s decision in Kaur v. New York State Urban Development Corp., The New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) has upheld the condemnation of property in the Manhattanville area of New York City for transfer to Columbia University. This outcome is not surprising. In fact, I predicted it back in December. In the recent Atlantic Yards case, the Court of Appeals had already held that state and local officials could declare virtually any area “blighted” and thereby make it eligible for condemnation and transfer to favored private interest groups.

Nonetheless, there are several extremely troubling aspects of this case. As in the Atlantic Yards decision, the court upheld an extremely dubious “blight” condemnation by applying a rule holding that any area could be declared blighted so long as it might be “underdeveloped.” Indeed, even the presence of underdevelopment (a phenomenon that occurs in almost every neighborhood at one time or another) need not actually be proven. Instead, the government need only show that there is “room for reasonable difference of opinion as to whether an area is blighted.” As the lower court opinion in Kaur pointed out, this kind of lax standard would allow the city to declare “[v]irtually every neighborhood in the five boroughs” blighted. And, as I pointed out in this post, the court’s position makes a mockery of the New York state constitution, which allows blight condemnations only in “substandard and insanitary areas.”

Even worse, the Court of Appeals in Kaur brushed aside or completely ignored extensive evidence showing that the blight study justifying the condemnations had been rigged in Columbia’s favor and that Columbia itself was likely responsible for most of the “blighted” conditions. The key “blight” study was conducted by AKRF, a consulting firm hired by Columbia. As [...]

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Property Rights Five Years After Kelo

Today is the fifth anniversary of Kelo v. City of New London, one of the most controversial decisions in Supreme Court history. In Kelo, a narrow 5-4 majority of the Court ruled that the condemnation of private property for transfer to other private individuals for purposes of promoting “economic development” was permitted by the Fifth Amendment, which allows government to condemn property only for a “public use.” Kelo was a flawed decision and it drew a massive political backlash. There are lesson to be learned from both.

I. The Shortcomings of Kelo.

In my view, Kelo was wrong both because it goes against the text and original meaning of the Constitution and because it embodies an unrealistic view of the political process. On the former point, this article by leading property rights historian Jim Ely does a good job of summarizing the relevant historical evidence. The Founders and early 18th and 19th century jurists disagreed among themselves about the exact meaning of “public use.” But there was widespread agreement that government lacked the power to condemn property owned by one private individuals and transfer it to another merely because the government claimed there might be some sort of public benefit.

Kelo was also mistaken because the majority justices wrongly assumed that the existence of a “plan” would minimize the likelihood that private interests would exploit the condemnation process to take from the politically weak. In reality, the political process makes it very easy for this to happen, as voters have great difficulty monitoring the quality of economic development takings. Moreover, the new owners of condemned property generally have no legal obligation to actually provide the economic benefits that supposedly justified the condemnation in the first place. This predictably results in condemnations that not treat property owners unjustly, [...]

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Is the Debate Over Eminent Domain “Empty and Incoherent”?

In a recent post on Kaur v. Urban Development Corporation, the Columbia eminent domain case currently before New York’s state supreme court, NYU lawprof Rick Hills argues that the debate over eminent domain is largely meaningless. Kaur, like the Atlantic Yards case before it, addresses a key issue in takings law: whether the condemnation of “blighted” property for transfer to a private party qualifies as a “public use” under state and federal constitutions even if “blight” is defined so broadly that almost any area can be declared blighted and condemned.

Hills argues that efforts to address this question are ultimately futile and tend to elide the really important issues:

[T]he doctrinal battle… [in Kaur] really is rooted in empty, incoherent blather that can never be a satisfying basis for a doctrine. “Blight” is an epithet in search of a definition, while “public use” is either merely a requirement of public benefit (in which case, it is judicially unmanageable) or a requirement of public title (in which case, it is a perverse encouragement of statist inefficiency).

The concepts of “public use” and “blight” ignore the real and fundamental dilemma raised by over-fragmented land — viz.: (a) land markets tend to do a poor job of re-assembling over-fragmented parcels but (b) assemblers use eminent domain to hog all of the post-assembly surplus, to the justified resentment of the dispossessed owners. Absent some assembly mechanism beyond arms’ length private bargaining, Manhattanville will be locked into drab industrial uses — gas stations, storage facilities, auto repair, etc — that, I strongly suspect, the owners themselves would quickly jettison if they could get a reasonable share of the “post-assembly” value. Getting rid of eminent domain will not vindicate these owners’ private property rights: It will simply insure that they can remain trapped

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New York High Court Oral Argument in Columbia Eminent Domain Case

The New York Court of Appeals (which, despite the misleading name, is New York’s state supreme court), held oral arguments yesterday in Kaur v. New York Urban Development Corporation, the case in which New York City is trying to condemn a large amount of property in the Manhattanville neighborhood in order to transfer it to Columbia University. The Columbia Spectator has an interesting summary of the oral argument here.

Columbia and the government’s Urban Development Corporation are claiming that the property can be taken because it is “blighted.” However, a lower court decision recently invalidated the takings because that the studies that supposedly prove the existence of blight are flawed and may have been deliberately cooked up to justify a bogus taking.

I have been very critical of both the Columbia takings specifically (see here for the most recent post and links to earlier ones), and the more general use of broad definitions of “blight” to justify condemnation of virtually any property that might be coveted by politically influential businesses and other interest groups.
At the same time, for reasons I discussed here, I am not optimistic that the Court of Appeals will uphold the lower court’s decision.

In the recent Atlantic Yards case, the court endorsed the constitutionality of condemnations under an extremely broad definition of “blight” that would allow the taking of any property that might be “underdeveloped.” I think the Atlantic Yards decision was badly misguided. Among other things, it grossly misinterpreted the blight provision New York’s state constitution, which only allows condemnation of “substandard an insanitary” areas. Nonetheless, it is difficult to distinguish the Atlantic Yards case from Kaur. However, the Spectator’s description of the oral argument suggests that the judges were tough on both sides, which may indicate [...]

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James Ely on Stevens, Kagan, Obama, and Property Rights

Vanderbilt lawprof James Ely – a leading expert on constitutional property rights – has an interesting column on the relevance of property rights to the current Supreme Court nomination:

In seeking a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, President Obama indicated that he wanted to name someone in the Stevens mold. Among the qualities of Justice Stevens that Mr. Obama hoped to find in a successor, the president noted “a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.”

However, in at least one important area of constitutional law – the rights of property owners – Justice Stevens’ record fell woefully short of protecting the interests of average citizens. In fact, Justice Stevens consistently dismissed property rights claims and voted to strengthen government control over the lives of individuals….

Justice Stevens’ propensity to minimize the rights of property owners was demonstrated vividly in his opinion in the controversial case of Kelo v. City of New London (2005). At issue was a city economic redevelopment plan under which land acquired from residents through eminent domain would be transferred to private parties for the construction of new residences, stores and recreational facilities…. Pfizer Corp. helped instigate the redevelopment plan in the hope that the new facilities would benefit its planned new headquarters. The area slated for redevelopment was a middle-class neighborhood that was not blighted or dilapidated. A few of the neighbors challenged the condemnation on grounds that it was not permissible under the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, which limits the exercise of eminent domain to “public use.” Writing for the court majority, Justice Stevens rejected this argument and upheld the taking of property for economic development purposes. He stressed heavy deference to governmental determination of what amounted to public use and

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Last Atlantic Yards Property Owner Agrees to Sell His Land Under Threat of Condemnation

The last property owner in the condemned Atlantic Yards area of Brooklyn, New York has agreed to sell his land in order to avoid the condemnation of his property by the city government [HT: Josh Blackman]:

The last man standing in front of the Atlantic Yards bulldozer has stepped aside.

Daniel Goldstein — founder of the anti-Atlantic Yards group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn and plaintiff in numerous unsuccessful suits against the $4.9 billion project — has reached an agreement with the project’s developer, Forest City Ratner, to move out of his condo on Pacific Street in Prospect Heights.

Mr. Goldstein confirmed that he would receive $3 million from Forest City. He bought his condo in 2003 for $590,000, but the state seized title to it under eminent domain last month, leaving Mr. Goldstein facing eviction. Mr. Goldstein said he would move by May 7.

He had told The Brooklyn Paper in an article published Wednesday morning that his lawyer would fight the condemnation or “get fair market value and just compensation” for the apartment, as eminent domain law requires when the state seizes property. He had said the state had previously made a lowball offer of $510,000 to him.

Goldstein may have received a higher than market value price for his land in exchange for agreeing not to speak out against the development project anymore:

According to executives who have been briefed on the negotiations, Mr. Goldstein also agreed to a highly modified form of the gag agreement that Forest City had initially imposed on those it bought out, under which he would step down as spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.

Mr. Goldstein said that he retains his right to free speech but is no longer allowed to “actively oppose the project.”

“There’s no end to the criticism

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Nicole Gelinas on Blight Condemnations in New York

Nicole Gelinas has an interesting article on the expansive use of “blight condemnations” in New York. As she points out, New York courts have defined blight so broadly that virtually any area can be designated as such, and then condemned. This has created massive opportunities for abuse by politically connected interest groups who can use eminent domain to get the government to take property they covet.

Gelinas has an extensive discussion of two famous recent New York blight condemnation cases: the Atlantic Yards case, and Columbia University’s efforts to acquire property through condemnation in Manhattanville. I have written about both extensively. See here for my analysis of the Atlantic Yards decision, and here for the Columbia case. Both posts include links to earlier cases.

Unfortunately, New York is far from the only state that defines blight broadly enough to justify the condemnation of almost any area. As I discuss here and here, numerous other states have similar laws. This enables many state legislatures to pretend that they have banned Kelo-style “economic development” condemnations even as they allow them to continue under the guise of alleviating blight. [...]

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Podcast of my Debate on Kelo and Post-Kelo Eminent Domain Reform with Saul Levmore

In response to popular demand, The University of Chicago Federalist Society has posted a podcast of my recent debate on Kelo and post-Kelo eminent domain reform with former U of Chicago Law School Dean Saul Levmore. Current UC Dean Michael Schill moderated. The podcast is available here. A good time was had by all, and I got some interesting new ideas for my planned book on Kelo and its aftermath. I am grateful to the UC Federalist Society for organizing this event, and to Dean Levmore and Dean Schill for their excellent participation.

I would like to briefly comment on a point Dean Levmore made that I didn’t get a chance to address at the debate. He claimed that “90 percent” of people whose property is condemned are happy about it (perhaps because they get high compensation). I would very much like to know the source for this statistic. Most studies of eminent domain compensation suggest that undercompensation is very common. For an excellent recent example, see this article by Yun-chien Chang, which finds that a majority of New York City takings involved less than fair market value compensation.

Many property owners actually value their land above the market price, which is one reason why they continued to own it in the first place instead of selling. So even fair market value compensation often won’t fully offset their losses. Studies of victims of blight and economic development takings (some of which I noted in the last part of this article) show that many of them end up far worse off than before. In that same piece, I also explained some reasons why even fully adequate compensation would not eliminate all the dangers of Kelo-style economic development takings.

Levmore is right that overcompensation is also problematic, since it [...]

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Debate on Kelo and Post-Kelo Eminent Domain Reform at the University of Chicago Law School

This Thursday from 12:15 to 1:30, I will be debating former University of Chicago Law School Dean Saul Levmore on Kelo v. New London and post-Kelo eminent domain reform – the biggest political backlash generated by any Supreme Court decision in many decades. Current UC Dean Michael Schill will moderate.

I am in the process of writing a book on Kelo and its aftermath, so this will be a good opportunity to present some of my ideas. It’s not every day that I get to present at at an event with this many Chicago deans taking part.

UPDATE: I previously posted the wrong links for my articles Kelo on post-Kelo reform. The mistake has been corrected. [...]

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