House bill stands up for private property rights


One of the more controversial Supreme Court decisions in recent years was 2005’s Kelo v. City of New London.  “The Kelo decision” has become shorthand for government encroachment upon private property rights.  Congress just passed a bipartisan bill to push back against such encroachment.  When I say “bipartisan,” I mean it was co-sponsored by Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and… Maxine Waters (D-CA), one of the most outspokenly liberal Democrats in the House.

Waters said of the Kelo decision, echoing the dissenting opinion of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “The founders cannot have intended this perverse result – using economic development as a justification for using its power of eminent domain at the expense of the poor and politically weak.”  The government shouldn’t be using eminent domain at the expense of the rich and well-connected, either, but the bill Waters sponsored isn’t means-tested.

In the Kelo case, the city of New London, Connecticut, decided to use eminent domain proceedings to take the last few pieces of property needed for a new Pfizer plant.  The other properties required had been voluntarily sold to the city by their owners, but Susette Kelo and some other homeowners wouldn’t budge.  The city seized her property on the grounds that the community benefits from its economic development plan satisfied the “takings clause” of the Fifth Amendment, and therefore outweighed Kelo’s property rights, even though the action amounted to taking property from one private owner and giving to another. 

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the city, although the minority (Justices O’Connor, Scalia, and Thomas, along with Chief Justice William Rehnquist) wrote some extremely heated dissenting opinions.  Thomas warned: “Today’s decision is simply the latest in a string of our cases construing the Public Use Clause to be a virtual nullity, without the slightest nod to its original meaning.  In my view, the Public Use Clause, originally understood, is a meaningful limit on the government’s eminent domain power.  Our cases have strayed from the Clause’s original meaning, and I would reconsider them.”

As it turned out, the City of New London’s great economic plan never came to fruition, and the properties they seized stand 13 years later as a huge vacant lot, after the city and state governments blew $78 million bulldozing the properties.

Rep. Sensenbrenner’s bill, the Private Property Rights Protection Act, penalizes eminent domain takings for “economic development” by making state governments “ineligible to receive federal economic development funds for two fiscal years following a judicial determination that the law has been violated” by “using its eminent domain power to transfer private property to other private parties for economic development,” as the congressman explained in his remarks on the House floor:

This isn’t Sensenbrenner’s first time at bat with the Private Property Rights Protection Act.  He got it through the House on a 376-38 vote all the way back in 2005, but it died in the Senate.  Will it meet the same fate again?  The same Democrat Party still runs the Senate, and they weren’t much impressed by House “bipartisanship” last time. 

It should be more clear to Americans than ever that none of their rights are “inalienable” any more.  You keep the rights you are prepared to defend.  State and local governments contain no shortage of bureaucrats who think they can put private property to better economic use than the owners, even when some of those plans end with nothing but expensive vacant lots.