My US Commission on Civil Rights Testimony on the Impact of Eminent Domain Abuse on Minority Groups

On August 12, I testified at a US Commission on Civil Rights hearing on the “Civil Rights Implications of Eminent Domain Abuse.” The video of the oral testimony is available here. I have now made my more detailed written testimony available online here. Here is the Introduction, which includes a summary of the rest [footnotes omitted]:

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the important issue of the impact of eminent domain on racial and ethnic minorities. I would like to thank Chairman Castro, Vice Chair Thernstrom, and the other commissioners for their interest in this vital question. As President Barack Obama aptly put it, “[o]ur Constitution places the ownership of private property at the very heart of our system of liberty.” The protection of property rights was one of the main purposes for which the Constitution was originally adopted. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has often relegated property rights to second class status, giving them far less protection than that accorded to other constitutional rights. And state and local governments have often violated those rights when it seemed politically advantageous to do so.

Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have suffered from government violations of constitutional property rights. But minority groups have often been disproportionately victimized, sometimes out of racial prejudice and at other times because of their relative political weakness. Minorities are especially likely to be victimized by private to private condemnations that test the limits of the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which requires that property can only be condemned for a “public use.” These include takings allegedly justified by the need to alleviate “blight” and promote “economic development.”

Part I of my testimony briefly surveys the constitutional law of eminent domain and public use. It documents the extent to which the Supreme Court has given condemning authorities a near-blank check to take property for whatever purposes they want.

Part II examines the impact of blight and economic development condemnations on minority groups. Both types of takings often victimize racial and ethnic minorities. Although such condemnations are defended on the grounds that they are needed to promote economic growth in poor communities, they often destroy far more wealth than they create. Economic development can be better promoted by other, less destructive means. African-Americans and Hispanics are targeted more often than other groups in large part because of their relative political weakness and comparatively high poverty rates. While, certainly, not all members of these groups are poor or politically weak, a disproportionately large number are.

Finally, in Part III I explain why the problem of abusive takings persists despite the wave of state reform laws adopted in response to the Supreme Court’s unpopular decision upholding economic development takings in Kelo v. City of New London. Many of the new laws actually impose little or no constraint on economic development takings. Even those that do impose meaningful restrictions usually still allow private-to-private condemnations in the types of “blighted” areas where many poor minorities live. Although post-Kelo reforms are a step in the right direction, much remains to be done before the property rights of poor minorities are anywhere close to fully protected.

UPDATE: Various commenters ask why this should be considered a “civil rights” issue and why it should matter whether there is a disproportionate impact on minorities. My answer is that property rights are in fact a major part of the “civil rights” that the framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment sought to protect. And they particularly wanted to ensure their protection for African-Americans, whose property rights were at the time threatened by southern state governments. The disproportionate impact on minorities also matters because it is in part the result of past and (to a lesser extent) present racism, as is also the political weakness that makes it easier for even unbiased local governments to target the poor minority neighborhoods. It is not my view that the disproportionate impact on minorities is the only or even the most important aspect of this issue. But it’s certainly worth considering, and well within the mandate of the Commission on Civil Rights.