As I’m sitting hear listening to oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court , I wonder if the justices will “get it” on eminent domain. Reading Ohio Supreme Court’s summary, posted on the it’s web site, I doubt it. Eminent domain cases are ultimately about fundamental civil libertiesÃ¢â?¬â??the protection of individuals and minorities from the excesses of government or other individuals (including corporations). Yet, like the federal court, eminent domain appears to be relegated to procedural issues. The “issue”, according to the the Court’s summary, is: “Does a city act unlawfully when it commissions an urban renewal study of a residential area previously targeted by private developer, classifieds the area as ‘deteriorating’ and subsequently uses its eminent domain powers to take (with compensation) the property of owners unwilling to vacate the targeted area to make way for private redevelopment?” I would argue the issue is whether the private property rights of homeowners and businesses are worthy of protection. Period. It shouldn’t matter whether a study finds that there is a public benefit to turning someone’s property over to another property owner because it meets a goal of the local government. Governments have lots of goals, but that doesn’t give them the latitude to suspend basic civil liberties and rights. Yet, that is exactly what the cities are arguing for in eminent domain. Again, quoting from the summary, the city will be arguing (in just a few minutes) that “the city charter critiera for redevelopment include many other factors affecting the future quality of life and viability of the area in general (emphasis in original).” In short, anytime the local government thinks that the public will benefit, as it defines public benefit, they can take your property as long as they given you money for it. Individual businesses don’t have any meaningful mechanism to prevent it. Will the Ohio Supreme Court get it? Stay tuned….
Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.