In Friday’s Washington Post, state legislators Scott Surovell and Linda Puller published an op ed attacking Question 1, the eminent domain reform referendum question that Virginians will vote on in November. Unfortunately, their arguments are off-base, and some are seriously misleading.
Question 1 would amend Virginia’s Constitution to forbid economic development takings of the kind the US Supreme Court allowed in Kelo v. City of New London. Such takings often enable powerful interest groups to use the power of eminent domain to transfer property to themselves at the expense of the politically weak; they also tend to destroy more economic value than they create. If adopted by the voters, Question 1 would provide some important protection against such abuses.
Surovell and Puller’s critique of Question 1 completely ignores the fact that Virginia’s present constitution is one of the worst in the country when it comes to protecting property rights. Article 1 Section 11 states that the “public uses” for which property can be taken by the government are to be “defined by the General Assembly” – the state legislature. This gives the legislators a blank check to authorize the taking of property for any reason they wish, including benefiting powerful interest groups at the expense of the poor and weak.
Surovell and Puller claim that “[t]he language in the Fifth Amendment [of the federal Constitution] is virtually identical to existing language in Article I of the Virginia constitution because James Madison borrowed the concept from George Mason, who had written it into the Declaration of Rights in 1776. It has stood virtually unchanged for 236 years.” They accuse supporters of Question 1 of seeking to “change language in the Virginia constitution that dates to George Mason.”