Your Home Is Not Your Castle

For many, the American Dream means buying a family home after years of saving or building a small business from the ground up. No one imagines the government will take that property only to hand it over to someone else so they can make more money off the land. But it happens all too frequently. Later this month, my organization, the Institute for Justice, will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court to try to limit this awesome power of government.

Eminent domain abuse is where the government forcibly takes private property from its owner so it may give it to another private party. From 1998 through 2002, I documented more than 10,000 properties in 41 states that faced condemnation, or the threat of it, to hand over the land to private developers. And that is just the tip of the iceberg, as many if not most, condemnations are never reported in public sources.

The case the Institute for Justice is arguing before the High Court involves a private development corporation in New London, Conn., that is trying to take the non-blighted homes of seven families so someone else can make more money off their land and build a project with a luxury hotel, upscale condos, private offices and, in some cases, unspecified private development. And the homeowners in New London are by no means the only ones in their state or the nation who have faced this most-tyrannical government power. Four elderly siblings in Bristol, Conn., were ousted for an industrial park. Neighbors in Norwood, Ohio, are being forced from their homes and small businesses so a politically connected developer with $500,000,000 in assets can get wealthier.

Private developers love eminent domain. By cozying up to local bureaucrats, they can secure land on the cheap without the hassles of negotiating with individual owners. And local officials get to trumpet exciting projects promising new jobs and taxes. But since everyone’s home or small business would generate more jobs or taxes as a big-box retailer, no one’s land is safe.

This was never supposed to happen. The U.S. Constitution and every single state limit eminent domain to projects for “public use.” Most people understand “public use” to mean things like highways, bridges and prisons–not a casino, condominiums or a private office building. But for too long, courts have failed to check the marriage of convenience between government and developers, declaring “public use” to mean whatever politicians say it means, no matter how blatantly private the project. That is why it is so important that the U.S. Supreme Court accepted this case; it has the possibility to finally set some outer limit by deciding that eminent domain for merely economic development–the creation of taxes and jobs–does not pass constitutional muster.

Fortunately, the tide is turning. Lower courts have sided with property owners in more than a third of recent cases including an important case before the Michigan Supreme Court, which had once set the standard for this kind of abuse. And citizen activists working independently and through the Castle Coalition, a grassroots network of eminent domain activists formed by the Institute for Justice, have defeated at least 21 projects.

The epidemic of eminent domain abuse has claimed too many victims and must be stopped. Until that day, no one’s American Dream will be safe from the overreaching hand of government.