Archive | Post-Kelo Reform

Our Amicus Brief Urging the Supreme Court to Hear Ilagan v. Ungacta – An Important Post-Kelo Property Rights Case

We recently filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear Ilagan v. Ungacta, an important property rights case on the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment. I wrote the brief on behalf of the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center, twelve other organizations (including the Cato Institute, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Owners’ Counsel of America – a nationwide organization of eminent domain lawyers, and the American Forest Resource Council), and several prominent constitutional law and property scholars, including co-bloggers Randy Barnett and Todd Zywicki.

Ilagan v. Ungacta is a fairly egregious case where land was condemned for the purpose of benefiting a powerful private party, in this case the then-mayor of Agana, Guam, and his family (the new owners of the condemned property). In Kelo v. City of New London, one of the most widely opposed decisions in Supreme Court history, the Court ruled that the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment allows condemnations for virtually any “public purpose,” including transferring property from one private owner to another in hopes of stimulating greater “economic development.” But the Court also noted that government may not “take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit.” Unfortunately, neither Kelo nor other Supreme Court decisions have made clear what it means for a taking to be “pretextual.”

As I explain in the brief (pp. 4-13), lower federal courts and state supreme courts have come up with at least five different approaches to deciding what counts as a pretextual taking. Some courts emphasize the motives of the condemning authority, some focus on the distribution of benefits from the taking, and some on the extent and quality of the planning process behind [...]

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Virginia Eminent Domain Reform Question 1 Passes

We don’t yet have the final results. But Virginia news radio station WINA 1070 is projecting that Question 1, the Virginia eminent domain reform referendum question, is going to pass by an “overwhelming” margin. For reasons I outlined here and here, this is an important improvement over the present Virginia constitution, which is one of the worst in the nation when it comes to protecting property rights. Question 1 is by no means perfect. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

This continues a longstanding national trend in which post-Kelo eminent domain reform referendum initiatives usually pass overwhelming, except in a few cases where they were paired with extraneous unpopular items. I discussed referendum initiatives that have passed in other states in this article.

I realize that this probably will not be the most important Virginia election result of the night. But it is significant for anyone interested in property rights issues.

UPDATE: A. Barton Hinkle of the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently posted a good column on Question 1 and its success.

UPDATE: The election returns are now available, and Question 1 got an impressive 74.7% of the vote. [...]

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Some Key Referenda to Watch

In addition to the presidential and congressional elections tomorrow, there are also some important referenda initiatives on the ballot in many states. They include several on issues of special interest to me and many VC readers: property rights and the War on Drugs.

Here in Virginia, we have Question 1, which would strengthen protection for property rights against eminent domain abuse. For reasons I outlined here and here, Virginia currently has one of the nation’s worst state constitutions on property rights issues. While far from perfect, Question 1 would be a major improvement over the status quo. I hope my fellow Virginians will support it.

Six other states have marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot, including three (Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) that would legalize marijuana entirely, and three others that would only legalize medical marijuana. As I explained here, all of these initiatives are imperfect, but still important improvements over the status quo. Polling data suggests that the Colorado and Washington initiatives have a good chance of passing, and Oregon is not completely out of the question. This is an important opportunity to roll back the War on Drugs in three major states, and I hope the voters will take it.

According to survey data, opposition to drug legalization comes disproportionately from political conservatives. I summarized the conservative case against the War on Drugs here. Conservatives and others may also want to check out the late William F. Buckley’s reasons for opposing it. [...]

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Election Predictions

I wouldn’t take this prediction to the bank if I were a betting man. But, like co-blogger David Bernstein, I give Obama a slight edge, perhaps a 60-65 percent chance of victory. In the contest between national polls favoring Romney and battleground state polls favoring Obama, I give slightly greater credence to the latter. My main reason for doing so is that their results have been more consistently favorable to Obama than the national polls have been for Romney. In addition, there is a nontrivial chance that Obama could win the electoral college while narrowly losing the popular vote. I also give some weight to the majority view among mainstream pollsters, which seems to be that Obama is more likely to win than not. On technical questions like this, I try to give some deference to expert opinion, unless there is strong evidence of bias or ulterior motives. And I am skeptical of claims by some conservatives that the professional pollsters are in the tank for Obama.

On the other hand, it’s certainly possible that the pollsters’ likely voter models are just slightly skewed in Obama’s favor. In a very close election like this one, even a 1-2 point skew could lead to an incorrect prediction as to the outcome. Dan McLaughlin of Red State makes an interesting case for that view in a series of posts (see here and here). Notice that McLaughlin is not claiming that Nate Silver and other analysts who predict an Obama victory are a bunch of idiots whose models are radically deficient, or a bunch of shills for the Democrats. Rather, he seems to be saying that Silver has a pretty good model that is slightly off – enough to make a wrong prediction in a close election. Silver [...]

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Upcoming Speech on Virginia Eminent Domain Reform – With Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli

This Thursday at 6:30 PM, I will be speaking on property rights and eminent domain reform in Virginia at the Old Dominion Boat Club in Alexandria. I will be joined by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, or perhaps it is more correct to say that I will be joining the AG. The event is open to the public.

I expect that much of the discussion will focus on Question 1, the eminent domain reform constitutional amendment that Virginians will vote on this November. Although Question 1 is far from perfect, I believe it is an improvement over Virginia’s present constitution. I defended Question 1 here and here. [...]

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A Dubious Attack On Virginia Eminent Domain Reform Referendum Question 1

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.”

In reality, neither the Fifth Amendment nor Virginia’s original 1776 Constitution [...]

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Thoughts on the Virginia Eminent Domain Reform Referendum Question

Various people have asked me what I think of Virginia Question 1, the eminent domain reform referendum question that will be on the ballot in November. Question 1 is one of many eminent domain reform referendum questions developed as part of the political backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London (2005), which ruled that the Constitution allows government to take property from one private owner to another on the grounds that doing so might promote “economic development.”

Virginia is one of 44 states that have enacted eminent domain reform legislation since Kelo. The most recent is Mississippi, where voters passed Measure 31 last year. Restrictions on eminent domain were long overdue because economic development and blight takings often victimize property owners for the benefit of powerful interest groups, and actually destroy more economic value than they create.

My bottom-line take on Question 1 is that it is a clear improvement over the status quo, but still has some flaws. As I discussed here, Virginia’s present Constitution is one of the worst in the country when it comes to property rights. Article 1, Section 11 allows government to condemn property for virtually any reason authorized by the legislature. If the voters pass Question 1, that will change.

Unlike many states that have enacted post-Kelo “reform” legislation that doesn’t really constrain eminent domain, Virginia’s state legislature has already enacted a fairly strong reform law through the legislative process, which I briefly described in my article surveying post-Kelo reform in all the states. But a constitutional amendment constraining eminent domain is still valuable because statutory reforms could easily be eroded over time as public attention shifts to other issues, and powerful interest groups lobby the legislature to allow takings that [...]

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Eminent Domain Abuse in Virginia

Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist A. Barton Hinkle recently published this piece on a case of eminent domain abuse in Virginia:

As a general rule, progressives do not get worked up about property rights the way conservatives do. This is a mistake — as a case out of Norfolk shows.

To the progressive eye, property is bound up with materialism and wealth and greed and other yucky things. But property is also bound up with some things progressives hold dear. And even progressives were outraged when, in its 2005 Kelo decision, the Supreme Court said governments could take property from the poor and give to the rich.

That is what has been happening in Norfolk, where the city’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority has been using eminent domain to take dozens of pieces of private property for resale to a foundation run by Old Dominion University. The housing authority has been collecting commissions on the sales; the foundation has then been turning the property over to developers for their use as part of a swanky new University Village.

Among those properties is the building that houses Central Radio, whose story was detailed here back in May 2010. Some years ago, Norfolk offered to buy the property for a lowball price of $700,000 (more than a decade before, a developer had offered more than $1 million). Central Radio’s president, Bob Wilson, turned the city down. So the city slapped a spurious designation of “blighted” on the property and condemned it.

Norfolk couldn’t get away with that today. Virginia’s General Assembly has sharply curtailed such abusive use of eminent domain, precisely because of cases such as this one and others like it….

But the legislature’s changes to eminent-domain law included a grandfather clause, allowing Norfolk to proceed. Wilson is naturally cheesed off. He has vented

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Eminent Domain and the Keystone Pipeline Project

The New York Times has an article describing how the TransCanada corporation is using eminent domain to forcibly acquire property to build the Keystone oil pipeline:

When the TransCanada men first came, Julia Trigg Crawford said, they were polite. They offered money. Seven thousand dollars to let the Keystone XL pipeline cross her family’s 600-acre farm on its way from the Alberta tar sands to the refineries on the Gulf Coast….

Ms. Crawford, 52, who serves as the farm’s manager, called the rest of the family. They agreed to sign. “We thought that at least if we signed we’d have some say in what happened,” she said.

They called the TransCanada representative. “He told us that if we could come up with a contract that worked for both parties, they wouldn’t condemn the land,” Ms. Crawford said…..

“I fully expected them to counter,” she said. “There were about five or six things we wanted, and we would have been happy to take one or two.”

Then, she said, TransCanada “went full radio silence.” The Crawfords never heard back from them — until October, when they got a letter saying their land had been condemned and a lease awarded to TransCanada.

But as the Crawfords discovered, when voluntary compensation agreements are not reached, Texas law allows certain private pipeline companies to use the right of eminent domain to force landowners to let pipelines through. This was true even for TransCanada, which has yet to get State Department permission to bring the Keystone XL across the Alberta border.

The article notes TransCanada’s claim that it has acquired the overwhelming majority of the property they needed for the pipeline through voluntary land sales. This may be true, but it is misleading. Like the Crawfords, these owners agreed to sell their land under the [...]

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My Upcoming Talk at Tulane on Property Rights Since Kelo

This Thursday at 4 PM, I will be speaking on “Property Rights Since Kelo” at Tulane Law School. Thanks to the Tulane Federalist Society for inviting me.

Much has happened on both the legislative and judicial fronts in the last few years. Considerable progress has been made in protecting property rights against abusive takings, but much work remains to be done in many states. I intend to give the audience a bird’s-eye survey of the good, the bad, and the ugly alike! [...]

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University of North Carolina Talk on Property Rights Since Kelo

This Thursday at noon, I will be speaking at the University of North Carolina Law School on “Property Rights Since Kelo.” Much has happened on both the legislative and judicial fronts in the last few years. Considerable progress has been made in protecting property rights against abusive takings, but much work remains to be done in many states. University of North Carolina law professor Carol Brown – a leading expert on the impact of eminent domain on low-income and minority communities – will comment on my talk, which is sponsored by the UNC Federalist Society.

This may be one of the few events at UNC Law School over the next few days that does not involve either the NCAA tournament or the individual mandate litigation! [...]

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Debating the Constitutionality of New York Blight Condemnations

The Fordham Urban Law Journal City Square website has posted a debate between NYU Professor Roderick Hills and myself on the the New York Court of Appeals controversial decisions upholding “blight” condemnations in the Atlantic Yards and Columbia University cases. In my 2011 symposium article “Let there Be Blight,” I argued that these takings violated both the New York state and federal constitutions. I especially emphasized the incompability between the court’s decision defining blight so broadly that virtually any area could qualify with the New York state constitutional provision limiting blight condemnations to “substandard and unsanitary areas.” Hills has written a critique of my analysis. My reply is available here.

Hills is one of the leading property and federalism scholars out there, and I always learn from our exchanges. As I explain near the end of my reply, in this case there may be more areas of agreement between us than initially meet the eye. [...]

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Eminent Domain Reform Bill Passes the House

The Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2012 passed the House yesterday on an overwhelming voice vote. I wrote about the bill in this post. As I explained there, the PRPA is far from a panacea for eminent domain abuse. But it takes a modest step in the right direction by cutting off some types of federal subsidies from local governments that engage in Kelo v. New London-like economic development takings.

This is not the first time that the PRPA passed the House by an overwhelming margin. The same thing happened in 2005, when a previous version of the bill won a lopsided 376-38 vote in the House only to die in the Senate without ever getting to a floor vote. Hopefully, we can avoid a repeat performance this year. But the Senate rarely moves quickly in an election year, and there are plenty of organized interest groups that are likely to lobby the senators to drag their heels until the 112th Congress expires – thereby forcing the bill’s proponents to go back to square one. [...]

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Another Chance at Federal Eminent Domain Reform

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s controversial Kelo decision, which allowed the condemnation of private property for economic development, some 44 states have passed eminent domain reform laws. Although many of those laws are likely to be ineffective, overall a good deal of progress has been made at the state level in curbing abusive condemnations, including by state courts enforcing the property rights provisions of their state constitutions.

Unfortunately, very little has been achieved at the federal level during that time. On the third anniversary of Kelo in 2008, I summed up federal reform efforts as follows:

[Insert sound of crickets chirping, grass growing, and paint drying].

Not much has changed since then. This is unfortunate because there is much that the federal government can do to prevent harmful takings. Many states have failed to pass effective reform laws, and federal funding often facilitates Kelo-like takings there.

Fortunately, as Christina Walsh of the Institute for Justice explains in this recent op ed, Congress now has another opportunity to rectify its previous omissions:

It has been demonstrated time and again that eminent domain is routinely used to wipe out black, Hispanic and poorer communities, with less political capital and influence, in favor of developers’ grand plans.

It also has been demonstrated that restrictions on eminent domain in no way inhibit economic growth, as the beneficiaries of eminent domain abuse would like you to believe….

Groups across the philosophical spectrum have recognized the need to limit this abuse of power to protect those who are defenseless against the seemingly unstoppable alliance of powerful, deep-pocketed developers and their politician friends. The diverse coalition has included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Federation of

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What if Kelo v. City of New London Had Gone the Other Way?

My new article “What if Kelo v. City of New London Had Gone the Other Way?” is now available on SSRN. It is part of an Indiana Law Review symposium on “What if? Counterfactuals in Constitutional History.” Here is the abstract:

Kelo v. City of New London is one of the most controversial decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history. The Kelo Court held that the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment allows government to condemn private property and transfer it to other private parties for purposes of “economic development.” This Article considers the question of what might have happened if the Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London in favor of the property owners. Such counterfactual analysis may seem frivolous. But it is, in fact, useful in understanding constitutional history. Any assessment of the impact of a legal decision depends on at least an implicit judgment as to the likely consequences of a ruling the other way. Analysis can be improved by making these implicit counterfactual assumptions clear and systematically considering their implications.

Part I briefly describes the Kelo case and its aftermath, focusing especially on the massive political backlash. That backlash led to numerous new reform laws. However, many of them turned out to be largely symbolic. Part II discusses the potential value of a counterfactual analysis of Kelo. It could help shed light on a longstanding debate over the effects of Supreme Court decisions on society. Some have argued that court decisions have little impact, mostly protecting only those rights that the political branches of government would protect of their own accord. Others contend that this pessimistic view underrates the potential effect of Supreme Court decisions.

Part III considers the possible legal effect of a ruling in favor of the property owners. Such a

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