By Steven Anderson
Because most eminent domain abuse occurs as a result of bad state laws, one goal of the Castle Coalition’s “Hands Off My Home” campaign is to effect change at the state legislative level, which we’ve aggressively pursued since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London. IJ continues to do the unthinkable: turn a legal setback into a major inspiration for reform across the nation at the state and federal levels.
In Pennsylvania, for example, we counseled legislators on S.B. 881, a sweeping reform of the state’s eminent domain laws. The bill, which is expected to pass the House early this year, prohibits condemnations for private commercial development and tightens the definition of blight. (The latter is necessary for real eminent domain reform and was missing from laws passed in Texas and Alabama.) The Castle Coalition continues to successfully mobilize the grassroots in the Keystone State, having already generated a well-received Pennsylvania white paper outlining the need for (and path to) reform, provided continual email updates and alerts, delivered legislative statements and a primer for lawmakers, and organized a day in Harrisburg for Castle Coalition members to lobby their legislators.
And the call for reform is spreading nationwide.
Thanks in part to the efforts of Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, Michigan voters will be considering an amendment to their constitution that will codify the Michigan Supreme Court’s Hathcock decision (which overruled the infamous Poletown case) and will make it tougher to condemn and acquire so-called blighted property. The amendment will be on the November ballot.
IJ chapters have also been busy. IJ Minnesota Chapter Executive Director Lee McGrath announced the formation of Minnesotans for Eminent Domain Reform in early January. This broad and diverse coalition, which includes the NAACP, Farm Bureau, Automobile Dealers Association, Hispanic and Hmong Chambers of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business and the Teamsters, is already working toward a legislative solution to Minnesota’s troubling eminent domain laws.
Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter Executive Director Tim Keller is similarly working with local citizens and legislators on reforming the state’s eminent domain laws, with particular attention to slum clearance and redevelopment statutes, and co-authored a white paper on eminent domain reform with the Goldwater Institute. Thanks to IJ-AZ’s advocacy in court and in the court of public opinion, Arizona’s case law on private-to-private transfers is firm, particularly after the Arizona Supreme Court’s recent rejection of the city of Tempe’s request to overturn IJ’s victory in Bailey v. City of Mesa.
With most legislatures returning to capitals early this year, our legislative work continues at full speed. As legislators in more than 40 states consider, pass, or will soon introduce legislation reforming government’s power of eminent domain, we have our work cut out for us assisting those who want to achieve real reform. Given the awareness we are generating and the momentum of our campaign, we’re confident significant reforms will pass.
Another key component of the Hands Off My Home campaign is activist education. In December, we held our first regional conference for eminent domain activists in Newark, N.J. The one-day conference, modeled on our annual national conference in Washington, D.C., was attended by almost four dozen activists from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York who learned the history of eminent domain, how to prepare for legal action and work with the media, and the basics of legislative reform. We will be in other states in the coming months, teaching home and small business owners how to fight for what is rightfully theirs.
Finally, on the day of the Institute for Justice’s recent oral argument against eminent domain abuse before the Ohio Supreme Court, the Castle Coalition organized a rally at the State Capitol, calling on the Court to protect home and small business owners from eminent domain abuse. Citizens from across the state, including large groups from Cincinnati and Cleveland, gathered to hear IJ attorneys and local property owners speak about their experiences and the urgent need for a constitutional restriction on the ability of government to transfer land from one private individual to another. The event was a resounding success and underscores the importance of this issue to people everywhere.
Through each victory—whether in the legislature, the court, the ballot box or the court of public opinion—we get closer to restoring the vision of our Founding Fathers: that property rights are an essential part of a free society, and that they are worthy of our respect and protection.
Steven Anderson is IJ’s Castle Coalition coordinator.