Civil Liberties

Razing Objections

Eminent domain curtailed.


Just before dawn on July 14, 1981, Detroit police hooked a tow truck to the basement door of the Immaculate Conception Church on Trombly Street and tore it off its hinges. They stormed in and arrested a dozen parishioners who were making a desperate, doomed attempt to save their neighborhood.

The city was clearing away Poletown, a working-class community in Detroit that included about 1,400 homes and 140 businesses, to make room for a General Motors assembly plant. The Michigan Supreme Court had approved the demolition of Poletown as a legitimate exercise of the city's eminent domain powers, concluding that the jobs and tax revenue the plant was expected to bring rendered it a "public use." Last July the court finally acknowledged that its decision in Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit was a mistake that opened the door to the potentially unlimited expropriation of private property in the name of the greater good.

"Poletown's 'economic benefit' rationale would validate practically any exercise of the power of eminent domain on behalf of a private entity," the court noted in a case involving Wayne County's attempt to seize property for a 1,300-acre business and technology park. In 1981 then-Justice James L. Ryan, dissenting from the Poletown decision, said much the same thing, warning that the ruling "seriously jeopardized the security of all private property ownership."

Since then, courts in Michigan and other states have followed the logic of Poletown in approving forced transfers of land from its rightful owners to people with more political clout: from homeowners to condominium developers, from small businesses to large businesses, from churches to retailers. "Poletown was the first major case allowing condemnations of areas in the name of jobs and taxes," explains Institute for Justice attorney Dana Berliner, who co-authored a brief urging the Michigan Supreme Court to repudiate the ruling. "It is cited in every property textbook in the country." By overruling Poletown, she says, "The court literally rewrote the book."