Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, represented the plaintiffs before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark eminent domain case Kelo vs. City of New London. He spoke with Reason in the wake of yesterday's decision in favor of the city.
Reason: Are you surprised by the decision?
Scott Bullock: Well I was surprised. It was rather shocking that a majority of the Supreme Court would permit this type of abuse. We're in an America where, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor points out, church property can be taken for a Costco, a farm can be turned into a factory, and a neighborhood can be leveled for a shopping mall. Most people cannot believe that this can happen in this country and the Supreme Court gave sanction to that with their decision.
Reason: What did you make of Justice Anthony Kennedy's vote against the plaintiffs?
SB: Yeah, it was surprising. I mean here's a guy who once wrote "individual freedom finds tangible expression in property rights." For him to be in a decision that fundamentally violates the right to own and enjoy your property, I think, is disgraceful.
Reason: Is there any recourse to the plaintiffs now?
SB: There is. There are going to be battles on two fronts. One, we're going to do everything in our power to keep these people in their homes. And we're going to explore all options to do so. But one thing that's coming out of this opinion that's very clear is that people are furious about this. And the anger comes from the left, right, libertarians, and everybody in between. People cannot believe that the court sanctioned something like this. So, I think that the growing grassroots rebellion against this is going to gain momentum. And I think that you'll see litigation about this in state courts, where the battle will largely be, at least for the time being. And you'll see a number of legislative changes though both legislatures and then also through the initiative process, as well. And we'll be there every step of the way to make sure that these abuses stop.
Reason: Given how many frivolous Constitutional amendments get proposed there days, why isn't there a serious movement for an amendment that would more narrowly define eminent domain powers?
SB: There's already discussion of doing so. And, as I said, this is a time to really think big about these issues because it's clear that a narrow majority of the Supreme Court has given the potential for businesses and local governments to work together to take people's land. And I think it was a real wake-up call to people that something has to be done about this. And hopefully we'll see some major changes.
Reason: How is this going to affect lower court decisions in other eminent domain cases, such as the Michigan Supreme Court's reversal of the Poletown decision last year?
SB: What's important to point out is that even the majority admitted that state courts are free to interpret their own provisions in a manner that's more protective of property rights. Thankfully, every state Constitution has prohibitions against private takings and a requirement that takings be for public use. And, only six states have held that economic development condemnations are Constitutional. Nine have held that they are not. And most states have not addressed it.
Reason: States that have ruled in favor include Connecticut, presumably?
SB: Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, New York and North Dakota: Those are the states that have said that this is acceptable to their state constitutions. Nine states have said that it's not. And then, most states have not addressed it. So, state courts, when this issue comes before them, are free to give greater protections to property owners and hopefully stop this practice in their states.
Reason: Speaking of private economic development, the import of the decision has largely been seen as clearing the way for seizures for private economic development, but that's not really unprecedented. Even railroads were private endeavors. So are we seeing something new here or does this decision just affirm the status quo?
SB: It's very different from something like a railroad. A railroad typically follows a very narrow strip of land. Railroads and utilities are what are known in the law as something called common carriers. So even though they might be privately owned, they're really the equivalent of public bodies because everybody, the public, has an equal right to them. Everybody has a right to the utility line. And they're very tightly controlled by public officials, so they're really the equivalent of public bodies; that's why the court upheld them. Here, we're talking about ordinary private uses of land—taking somebody's home for a Costco, taking Church property to give to another private owner. That's why this opinion is so sweeping and it's so far removed from even what the courts did in the railroad cases, or even in the situations involving blight. Because even in those cases, the government had to show that there was some type of harmful condition to that land before it was justified for condemnation. Here, the court said, whatever land the developers happen to desire is up for grabs.
Reason: The irony is that we're in this period of resurgence for American cities. Most major cities are doing better now than they have in decades, and arguments about urban blight are hard to make. Given yesterday's lifting of the need to prove an area is blighted, how do you expect that to play out?
SB: I think it puts more and more properties up for grabs because here it will be dependent, not on whether or not the property is blighted, but whether it happens to be desired by private parties. So you're going to see people of less economic means, poorer folks, middle class folks who happen to live in the city and live in desirable neighborhoods that are going to be targeted by these types of takings. That's the real travesty of this, and that's one of the strongest points made by Justice O'Connor and Justice Thomas, that this is going to fall hardest on people of limited financial means. And it's going to be to the benefit of the wealthy and the government.
Reason: One of the disheartening aspects of this decision is that two of the four dissenters are not long for the court. Justice William Renquist is pretty ill and Justice O'Connor is said to be close to retiring. Do you have any predictions about how a change in the Supreme Court composition will affect property rights?
SB: Well, I don't know. These things are always hard to predict. Look at Justice Kennedy's track record on property rights. But this is also the case where you could have a member of the court who might be more from the left but come to a very different decision from what some of the more liberal members of this court decided. As I mentioned, there are a number of people who are concerned about civil liberties, concerned about decisions that affect the poor and minorities, who are outraged about this.
One point you hear from some people who are trying to defend this decision is that the government went through a planning process in this case, that this is part of a well-developed plan. The idea that having a plan and going through a planning process protects property owners in any way is completely disconnected from reality. I mean, every development in this country has a planning process. You can't just show up in an open field one day and say, "Well I'm here to build my office park." Everything in this country has to go through a process, has to be announced, has to have hearings; to think that this provides any protection for property owners who face the loss of their homes and small businesses is nonsense. And it shows how some members of this Court and some defenders of this policy don't understand how these things really pan out in the real world.
Reason: Can you give some examples of other eminent domain abuses among the 10,000 cases you guys have cited?
SB: I'll give you one primary example that's brewing in Long Branch, New Jersey right now, where a group of people want to hang on to their working-class beach homes. They've worked very hard to get their modest bungalows along the shore. These houses were purchased by working class folks in Newark and other places, and now many of the elderly residents live there full-time; these are their dream homes. And the City of Long Branch is just proposing taking these people's homes and transferring them to wealthier home-owners. They want to tear them down and build million-dollar condominiums for people right along the shore in northern New Jersey. And so it's a case of taking the property of poorer folks and giving it to wealthier folks, and using it for the same purpose. It's just a transfer of wealth between home owners. It's a classic example of eminent domain abuse and one that I think will be litigated in the very near future.
Reason: Is that going to be a new wrinkle, that the property is going to be used for the same purpose?
SB: Well, possibly. There are a number of ways to challenge these types of takings. And I'm sure there will be many issues that are brought up in that case and some of the other ongoing controversies.
Reason: Where are the real outrages happening? Is New London more typical, or is something like Washington, D.C.'s stadium grab a more characteristic situation?
SB: The problem is that there are so many examples of eminent domain abuse. It's hard to find one that captures it entirely. New London was a classic example of this, but there are several others as well. They typically fall under two categories: One is when the government takes land just simply to produce more tax revenue. That was the situation that was going on in New London. The other thing is what we call the abuse of blight laws. An example of that is a case we were involved in in Lakewood, Ohio, where the government used blight laws simply as a means to an end. They're not really concerned about conditions in the neighborhood; they simply want to have it declared blighted so they can get the property and transfer it to private developers. The criteria that the City of Lakewood used to get the neighborhood declared blighted included such things as that the homes were lacking central air conditioning, didn't have an attached two-car garage, or lacked full bathrooms. It was really a means to an end, and the abuse of blight laws is an ongoing controversy and also encompasses a lot of the examples we point to of eminent domain abuse.