The Political Battle Over Eminent Domain Reform in Virginia

Virginia was one of several states that enacted a strong eminent domain reform law after the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that it was permissible for government to take private property and transfer it to other private individuals in order to promote economic development. Supporters of the Virginia law are now trying to incorporate it into the state Constitution. But, as the Washington Times reports, they are beginning to encounter resistance from local governments, which have a vested interest in keeping their eminent domain authority as broad as possible [HT: VC reader James Taylor]:

A state constitutional amendment to expand Virginia’s eminent domain laws is meeting local resistance, with the city of Alexandria agreeing to contribute as much as $5,000 for a lobbying firm to help fight the legislation.

The amendment, sponsored for the 2012 General Assembly session by Delegate Rob Bell, Albemarle Republican, attempts to change the Virginia Constitution by updating a law enacted in 2007 that says private property can be taken only when the public interest dominates the private gain, among other conditions.

“The goal is to put [the amendment] into the constitution so that it can’t be tinkered with,” Mr. Bell said….

The amendment passed with wide support during the 2011 General Assembly session, with help from Mr. Bell. It cleared the House by a vote of 83-15 and the Senate by a vote of 35-5.

But to amend the state constitution, the measure must pass again in the assembly before going to the public as a voter referendum on the 2012 ballot.

Despite the broad support, Mr. Bell said, amendment supporters are girding a fight.

“We are not taking anything for granted,” he said….

Mr. Bell said, the impetus was to protect property owners.

“The local governments were certainly opposed to the original statute and claimed it would bring along the end of the world,” he said. “Of course, it hasn’t.

When it comes to property rights, Virginia’s present constitution is one of the least protective in the country. Article I, Section 11 gives the state legislature virtually unconstrained authority to “define” what qualifies as a “public use” that justifies taking property by eminent domain. Essentially, the legislature can license the condemnation of property for virtually any reason it wants. Few if any other state constitutional rights are left so completely to the mercy of the very state officials they are supposed to protect us against. It would be as if the legislature had total discretion to determine what kind of speech can be censored or when police are authorized to search your home.

In the short term, it doesn’t matter much whether eminent domain in Virginia is constrained only by strong statutory restrictions or by a constitutional amendment. But in the long run, a constitutional amendment would be a vital safeguard against the gradual erosion of property rights. Effective post-Kelo reforms like that in enacted in Virginia are the product of an unusual upsurge in public attention focused on eminent domain issues. Most of the time, the vast majority of “rationally ignorant” voters pay little or no attention to the subject. Even in the immediate aftermath of Kelo, many states enacted ineffective laws in part because voter ignorance makes it difficult for the electorate to tell the difference between genuine reforms and those that only pretend to constrain economic development takings.

As Kelo recedes into the past, public attention will understandably focus on other matters, and influential interest groups can lobby state legislators to gradually roll back post-Kelo reforms. The public might not even notice what is happening, just as most of them were unaware of the prevalence of Kelo-style takings in many states before the Supreme Court focused a national spotlight on the issue in 2005. A state constitutional amendment can help forestall this kind of gradual erosion of property rights. Unlike some other state constitutions, the Virginia Constitution is relatively difficult to amend. Thus, it will be much harder to roll back a constitutional reform than a purely statutory one.

UPDATE: Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist A. Barton Hinkle has a good column about the proposed Virginia amendment here.