[FoRK] "Foes in Congress unite in defense of property rights"
Mon Jul 4 22:14:18 PDT 2005
Unfortunately, the tool they plan to use -- withholding of Federal funds --
points out again what a joke "State's Rights" is in these times.
Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Friday, July 1, 2005
Washington -- House and Senate Republican leaders, backed by
Democratic African American liberals, moved rapidly Thursday on
legislation to blunt last week's Supreme Court decision allowing local
governments to seize private property for economic development projects.
Rep. Maxine Waters, a liberal Democrat from South Central Los
Angeles, and Rep. Richard Pombo, a rock-ribbed conservative Republican
from rural San Joaquin County -- who rarely join forces on any issue --
were among a group that introduced a bill to cut off federal funds for
cities that use eminent domain for such projects.
"Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals are going to
be organizing behind opposing the Supreme Court decision,'' Waters said.
"It's like undermining motherhood and apple pie. I mean, people's homes
and their land -- it's very important, and it should be protected by
government, not taken for somebody else's private use."
Pombo, a longtime property rights advocate, said anger at the
court's 5-4 decision in a case from New London, Conn., had united rural
landowners with suburbanites and city dwellers fearful that cities will
eye their homes for hotels, malls or any commercial use they think will
generate more tax revenue.
The Supreme Court "is way out of line on this,'' Pombo said.
"There's nothing in the Constitution that allows them to step in and
take property away from an individual and give it to somebody else."
The action in Congress comes just months after Republicans suffered
intense criticism for trying to intervene in court decisions to remove
life support for Terri Schiavo in Florida and as Capitol Hill readies
for a clash over a potential Supreme Court vacancy.
The case was brought by the libertarian Institute for Justice and
pitted nine landowners in New London against the city's efforts to build
a marina, office and retail space on waterfront property near a new $300
million research facility built by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Corp.
The nine homeowners included Susette Kelo, who bought her home in
1997, and Wilhelmina Dery, who has lived in her home since her birth in
The Fifth Amendment's eminent domain clause allows government to
take private property for public use. Traditionally, this has meant land
to build railroads, highways, schools and other public facilities. The
government pays property owners a fair market price in exchange for the
The question before the court was whether economic redevelopment
projects that convert private property to other private uses constitute
a "public purpose."
The court, led by Justice John Paul Stevens, concluded that it does,
arguing that the justices should defer to the decisions of local
governments rather than "crafting an artificial restriction on the
concept of public use."
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor dissented, joined by three conservative
justices, saying the decision would allow condemnation of any property.
"For who among us can say she already makes the most productive or
attractive possible use of her property?" O'Connor argued. "Nothing is
to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any
home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."
In eight states, not including California, state high court rulings
provide a higher level of property protection than the U.S. Supreme
Court decision, said Dana Berliner, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice.
The legislation introduced Thursday, backed by the chairman of the
House Judiciary Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and its
ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, would deprive cities of
any federal funds for redevelopment projects that use the power of
In a first step toward the legislation, the House voted 231-189
Thursday in favor of an amendment to an appropriations bill that would
bar the departments of Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban
Development from providing money to cities that use eminent domain for
Pombo said he has no worries about criticism that Congress is again
trying to interfere with the judiciary, "because we're right on this.
Honestly, I'd be shocked if anybody voted against this bill."
Pombo noted that two prominent liberal organizations, the NAACP, a
civil rights group, and AARP, a retiree group, sided with the property
"It doesn't take a genius to look at this and figure out who's going
to be hurt by it," Pombo said. "It's not the big developers. It's not
the wealthy. They have influence. They can stop the city council from
taking their property. It's the poor guy who doesn't even know who his
city councilman is that's going to be hurt."
Pombo, of Tracy, won his seat in Congress and now chairs the House
Natural Resources Committee in part because of his long crusade to
protect landowners from alleged "regulatory takings" of their property
through enforcement of such laws as the Endangered Species Act.
The Kelo decision raises the stakes, he said.
"This isn't about taking some farmer's ranch for endangered species
habitat," Pombo said. "This is about taking your house because the city
thinks it has a better use. This affects every homeowner in the country."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco opposes the
bill and said Republicans are trying to interfere with the judiciary again.
"This is in violation of the respect for separation of ... powers in
our Constitution," Pelosi said.
Pelosi was careful not to say she approved of the high court's
ruling. But she said the decision has been made and will require a
constitutional amendment to reverse.
People for the American Way, which is leading liberal opposition to
President Bush's judicial nominees, noted that the Kelo ruling is among
several narrowly divided decisions that demonstrate the importance of
the fight over any Supreme Court vacancy.
Elliot Mincberg, the group's legal director, said the case had been
brought by the Institute for Justice as part of an effort by
conservatives to elevate property rights to the same level of civil
rights such as freedom of speech and religion, in effect taking the
nation back to the pre-New Deal days when the courts ruled child labor
Mincberg said the court had ruled that "legislatures should decide
if a taking is for public use, and we shouldn't get to review it based
on the vague wording of the Constitution."
Waters countered that city councils are not a good place for such
"I am offended by the idea that a big, rich pharmaceutical company
could get this kind of decision to build condominiums around a complex
they built," Waters said. "I worry about these little cities and towns
where big, wealthy developers can influence elected officials with large
campaign contributions and undermine what public use and eminent domain
was meant to be."
Berliner, of the Institute for Justice, said poor areas were not the
only ones targeted.
"Developers want prime real estate, so that's what cities condemn,"
Berliner said. "That means waterfront property, property in the center
of cities, property near transportation hubs, property in areas that are
up and coming. All of those routinely get condemned for private
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