Errors in the Baltimore Sun's Coverage of the Maryland "Quick Take" Case:

Today's Baltimore Sun has a generally informative article about Mayor of Baltimore v. Valsamaki, the Maryland Court of Appeals decision limiting the power of local governments to engage in "quick take" condemnations. Unfortunately, the article also contains at least three serious errors.

Sun reporter Jill Rosen writes that Valsamaki "runs counter to the [US] Supreme Court's 2005 decision giving governments broad powers to take properties for private development." Presumably, Rosen is referring to Kelo v. City of New London. Unfortunately, her statement actually contains two separate errors.

First, Kelo only addressed the constitutionality "economic development" takings under the federal Constitution. It decided nothing about their permissibility under state constitutional or statutory law. As I explained in this post, Valsamaki was in fact decided on the basis of Maryland statutory law. Perhaps Rosen meant to say that Kelo, although not binding on state courts interpreting state law, still encourages them to interpret eminent domain power broadly. But even this conjecture is contradicted by the text of the Kelo decision. In his majority opinion for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote:

We emphasize that nothing in our opinion precludes any State from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power. Indeed, many States already impose "public use" requirements that are stricter than the federal baseline. Some of these requirements have been established as a matter of state constitutional law, while others are expressed in state eminent domain statutes that carefully limit the grounds upon which takings may be exercised.

Second, even if Kelo could be interpreted as applying to state law, Valsamaki still wouldn't "run counter" to it. Kelo addressed the question of the purposes of condemnation, holding that takings for the purpose of promoting "economic development" are permissible. By contrast, Valsamaki addressed only the procedural device of "quick take" condemnations. It is perfectly consistent for the Maryland high court to hold (as indeed it has) that takings for "economic development" are permissible, but that they and other takings cannot - in most cases - be implemented through the quick take procedure. Wrong, in my view (because I disagree with the Court's 1975 decision holding that "economic development" condemnations are permissible), but not inconsistent. In addition, Valsamaki, unlike Kelo, turned on statutory issues, not constitutional ones.

Another important error in Rosen's article is her statement that the quick take procedure was "a tactic hardly tested in the legal system." In reality, numerous state and local governments have routinely used quick take condemnations for years, and courts have generally accepted the practice. As Institute for Justice attorney Dana Berliner stated in a quote elsewhere in the article, the decision will mark "a big change for a city [Baltimore] which basically has used quick take for all of its acquisitions." And Baltimore was certainly not alone.

A quick (and by no means exhaustive) Westlaw search reveals dozens of state cases addressing various aspects of "quick take" condemnations, many of them endorsing the permissibility of the procedure. For example, the Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of its state's "quick take" law just last year in Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. v. Parking Company, 892 A.2d 87 (R.I. 2006)(a decision that also to some extent tightened Rhode Island's constitutional standards limiting the purposes of condemnation).

I realize that nonspecialist reporters working against short deadlines will necessarily make some mistakes. However, it seems to me that these particular errors - which might have been prevented simply by a cursory reading of Kelo and a quick Lexis-Nexis search - could have been avoided without great difficulty. If nonexpert journalists cannot be expected to do even this much, then the Post and other major papers should hire specialist reporters who focus on covering legal issues. Jan Crawford Greenburg is an excellent example of a specialist legal reporter who really knows her stuff.

NOTE: I do not mean to deny the possibility that U.S. Supreme Court decisions interpreting the federal Constitution can sometimes influence state court decisions interpreting similar provisions in state constitutions. That has certainly often happened in the past. In the case of Kelo, however, any such influence is likely to be diminished by Justice Stevens' explicit statement that Kelo's federal holding does not constrain state decisions. In any event, this possible effect of Kelo does nothing to validate Rosen's statement that Valsamaki (which did not even address a constitutional issue) "runs counter" to Kelo.