Friday, June 24, 2005

Take My House, Please

The US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, has ruled that the government may take a person’s property and hand it over to a private developer for the purpose of economic development. In the case before the Court, the city of New London, Connecticut condemned houses in a waterfront area to make way for a luxury development.

The issue before the Court was what exactly constitutes a public purpose. Opponents of eminent domain, led by the Institute for Justice, believe that a public purpose needed to be narrowly constituted (i.e. for the building of a school or bridge) in order to fully protect a citizen’s right to own property. The Court in disagreeing argued that an economic development project, by creating jobs and tax revenues, was to be considered in the public interest as well.

All of which leaves opponents of the Brooklyn Arena disarrayed and in disarray because it takes whatever thread of legal hope they may have harbored and unraveled it. It also puts any potential legal challenge by the Willets Point merchants in jeopardy.

We find the Court’s decision weak for one major reason. It allows government to define almost anything as in the public interest. If the Court had ruled for the plaintiffs, however, it could have force local governments to more rigorously define the concept and put additional layers of protection for property owners.

That being said, it is now up to the local and state governments to do what the Court was reluctant to do: craft a better definition of the public good and build better barriers to a promiscuous use of eminent domain. In the absence of a judicial edict, governments should be forced to act.