Democratic lawmakers across the country are demonstrating an often-overlooked commitment to protecting private property rights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London.
In the Indiana legislature, Democrats have taken the lead in formulating legislation to protect private property rights from government takings.
State residents “want to make sure you don’t come knocking on their door because someone thinks it’s a good place to throw up a strip mall,” said Rep. Ryan Dvorak (D-South Bend) during August 10 hearings on the topic, as reported the following day by the Indianapolis Star.
In Texas, a bill designed to bolster private property protections received unanimous support from House Democrats in July. House Republicans also supported it unanimously. A similar bill passed the Texas Senate with only four votes–three Democrats, one Republican–against it.
Explained Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso), “The Kelo case raised key issues on when condemnation can be used for economic development. In my view, condemnation should never be used to take a private property from one to confer a private benefit to another. [The Texas legislation] made sure that government shows a public use when condemnation is used. While the bill is far from perfect, I think it addressed many of these issues.”
The New Jersey governor’s race is turning into a contest over who will be more dependable in protecting citizens against eminent domain abuses.
Businessman Doug Forrester, who served as assistant state treasurer in Republican Gov. Tom Kean’s administration, immediately responded to the Kelo decision by appointing a task force to study what steps the state can take to bolster its private property protections. Less than a day later, U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine (D) outlined seven concrete steps he would take to strengthen property rights.
Among his recommendations, Corzine proposed requiring municipalities to study alternatives to condemnation, delaying condemnation proceedings until all appeals are exhausted, eliminating no-bid development contracts on condemned land, and requiring homeowner compensation above fair-market value.
“New Jersey must strengthen its existing laws to guarantee that homeowners throughout this state are protected, that the system is open to the public and easy to understand,” said Corzine, as reported by the July 15 Greenwire.
“There should be no taking of homes for economic development except in rare and exceptional circumstances and then only with adequate safeguards to ensure that the process is fair and transparent,” Corzine added, according to a July 15 New Jersey Star-Ledger report.
Not willing to wait for the outcome of the upcoming governor’s race before taking action, Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) introduced on July 1 a bill prohibiting any state or local government entity from taking residential property and transferring it to another private person or group.
California, New York
In California, Sen. Dean Florez (D-Kern County) introduced a similar bill banning public agencies from taking private property from one citizen and giving it to another.
In New York, Democratic Assemblyman and attorney general candidate Richard Brodsky has made private property protection a centerpiece of his campaign, condemning the Kelo decision and pledging to protect New Yorkers’ private property.
In Connecticut, where the actions of the New London city government led to the Kelo decision, Democrats are beginning to call for stronger protection against eminent domain abuses. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, after initially praising the Court for upholding New London’s taking of private property, began backtracking the very next day.
“We must make sure that [Connecticut’s eminent domain law] protects private property rights and adequately defines the public interests that taking private property must serve,” said Blumenthal, according to the July 13 New York Times.
Connecticut House Speaker James Amann, a Democrat who in recent years oversaw the defeat of three separate Republican proposals to restrict government’s ability to take private property and hand it over to another private entity for economic development, also appeared to be changing his stance on the issue.
“We certainly don’t agree with the Supreme Court,” Amann said in a July 12 news conference, according to the New York Times.
Agreement Crosses Party Lines
“This is one of those that issues that cuts across party lines,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, who argued for the plaintiffs before the Supreme Court.
“There have been a number of Democrats stepping up and saying there must be limits to government authority and eminent domain abuses,” Bullock added. “Regardless of political party or political beliefs, this is a uniting issue. This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, but an American issue.”
“It is very encouraging that support for eminent domain protections cuts across party lines. This is an issue in which Republicans and Democrats are distinguishing themselves equally at the state and local level,” Bullock concluded.
James Hoare ([email protected]) is managing attorney at the Syracuse, New York office of McGivney, Kluger & Gannon.