The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that local governments can seize land if the purpose is to improve it. "Improve it" apparently also means the same as "increase the tax base". Legal watchers are predicting a retail bonanza, as businesses target run-down neighborhoods in otherwise expensive areas for seizure.
This is really a tragedy on many levels. 1) One of the main pillars this country was founded on was property rights. The ability to own land without fear that it would be taken at the whim of the government was encoded into the Constitution (or so I thought). 2) The effects of gentrification, which have always been hard on the poor, will now be devastating. Until yesterday, poor residents may have had problems paying their rising property taxes, but at least when they sold, it was to the highest bidder in a hot market. Now they won't even get the choice to sell high. They'll be forced to sell at the appraised value.
3) The conservation movement may have just been shot in the back. Modern conservationists have begun purchasing land to protect it. Private citizens have been buying empty land so that it might stay empty, not relying on the cities and states to preserve wilderness. Today, said cities and states can simply take the land away, rendering any attempt to keep any pastoral beauty pointless.
However, as much as I despise the implications of this ruling, I cannot say that I would have not done the same place in the justices' shoes. (robes?) The applicable clause in the 5th Amendment says, "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The argument, therefore, is over the term "public use". New London, Connecticut, argues that shoring up the tax base is in the public interest, especially when the blue-collar city has been depressed for some time. That is, New London is using the seized land for revenue. As odious as this is, it is a legitimate argument. The dissenting opinion from the Supreme Court makes 4 arguments, 1 legitimate, 2 stinking of judicial activism, and a 4th argument that's a little of both. Argument 1: Increasing the tax base is a public interest, not a public use. This is a legitimate argument. In this case, for some reason, it did not resonate with 5 of the justices. Argument 2: Now, "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." While true, it does not address the Constitutional issue. It's rhetoric better suited for the legislative floor, not the courthouse. Argument 3: Thomas says that because past use of the Public Use clause has been mostly limited to public works like canals, highways, and utilities, it should stay that way. This reminds me of the Republican claim that although the Patriot Act allows the Feds to invade your privacy, please trust that the government never will. Bottom line - if the law says it can be done, rest assured that someday it will be done. There are 280 million people living in the country. Not everybody out there plays nice. Argument 4: "discrete and insular minorities" will suffer for the overall interests of everyone else. That is, we're robbing the poor to steal from the rich. This is a true concern, and actually has some legal standing. Unfortunately, it's not illegal for the government to shift resources from the poor to the rich. If that were the case, the Bush tax cuts would never have been. However, it is illegal to discriminate against Blacks. If it could be shown that allowing property seizures for economic development would disproportionately affect Blacks, you could say that it would be illegal (although not unconstitutional). Unfortunately, while that still remains a possibility, nobody can prove it. And there is no law against discriminating against poor people.
Despite my misgivings towards amending the Constitution, this is clearly a loophole. The Supreme Court did their job, allowing a state the right to do what it is Constitutionally allowed to do. If we want to re-examine "Public Use" and redefine it to mean, "Public Works", we'll have to do that with legislature, not with the courts. A sad day for America, true, but not because justices did not do their jobs correctly.