One's Castle, Another's Mall

One of the sacrifices sometimes required of Americans for the greater community good, like yearly tax bills or a military draft, is to give up their home - with, of course, "just compensation."

Such drastic seizure of private property, or eminent domain, is limited to "public use," as worded in the Fifth Amendment, and has long been applied in building railroads, highways, parks, and public housing.

Last week, however, the Supreme Court greatly broadened the definition of "public use" to include government-planned commercial projects that - it's often promised - might produce jobs and tax revenue.

The court, in a hotly disputed 5-4 ruling, decided to back the right of the city of New London, Conn., to condemn homes in a "distressed" area for the sake of "public purpose," or economic development.In Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, and even Connecticut, state supreme courts have already decided that certain types of private development can justify property seizures - even if there's actually little public use in such projects.

As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warned in her dissent in this decision: "Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

Her examples are a bit exaggerated, since the majority's decision spelled out that governments must have "carefully formulated" and comprehensive plans for such projects. Plans should be the result of "public debate" and show "necessity and wisdom."

The court, in essence, said it can't set down rigid rules for all types of eminent domain, and preferred to let state legislatures and lower courts discern local public needs. "There is no principled way of distinguishing economic development from other public purposes," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

Still, this decision, despite its backhanded deference to federalism, has redefined "public use" so boldly that it should serve as an alert to all citizens to be more involved in local and state government to influence such "takings."

Taking one's home is bad enough, so it should not be done without adequate public dialogue that makes a strong case for clear community benefits. Nor should a community's poor or minority areas - or tax-free churches - be the preferred areas for commercial projects.

"Just compensation" should be high enough to relieve the harm of uprooting residents. Most of all, citizens should not have to suspect that wealthy developers have greased the palms or stuffed the campaign war chests of public officials who make such decisions.

Placing the community good above property and individual rights should always involve the widest dialogue, transparent decisionmaking, and the least coercion. These rights are both inherent and protected in our collective self-government, and should not be ripped away lightly.

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