It has often been said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And it is true: Winning decisive victories is important, but only if you stick around to make sure that the opponent you put down stays down.
There may be no better example of this than IJ’s battle against eminent domain abuse. The battle against the unholy alli- ance of land-hungry developers and tax-hungry bureaucrats that surrounded IJ’s Kelo case was one for the history books—and,
it turns out, one for the movie screens. (A film adaptation of the story, Little Pink House, is expected to hit theaters in 2017.) And it was a battle we won. While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the government in Kelo, the decision caused a wave of public outrage that (along with IJ’s Hands Off My Home campaign) led 44 states to change their laws to better protect property rights and nine state supreme courts to make it more difficult for the government to use eminent domain. California abolished its redevelopment agencies altogether. And property owners across the country were emboldened to stand up for themselves by IJ’s Castle Coalition, which used political pressure and activism to stop city officials from condemning private property in the first place.
As a result, eminent domain abuse slowed dramatically and, in many places, halted entirely. There were still major property rights fights—among them IJ’s successful defense of the Community Youth Athletic Center’s boxing gym in California and our ongoing defense of Charlie Birnbaum’s longtime family home in Atlantic City—but there was no question that the land grabbers were in full retreat.
But nothing stays down forever, particularly not things that are as profitable as using government power to steal people’s homes and small businesses. As real estate values have recovered from the financial crisis and, perhaps, as local officials have begun to forget how unpopular eminent domain abuse is, more and more local governments are yielding to the temptation to do a little real-estate speculation—using, of course, other people’s real estate. California has created brand-new redevelopment agencies, while officials in other states across the country have begun a quiet but nonetheless full-scale assault on property rights. IJ’s activism team, Liberty in Action, is currently fighting more instances of eminent domain abuse than at any point in the past three years.
What does all this mean? It depends on where you are: Many states, like Ohio, where IJ won a landmark victory for property rights in the state’s highest court several years back, or Florida, where IJ helped pass a best-in-class constitutional amendment prohibiting eminent domain for private gain, remain safe havens. And a few states like New York never stopped abusing eminent domain in the first place. Many more states lie in the middle, with more protections in place than there were before Kelo but nonetheless with a real possibility that highly motivated government officials could make an under-the-radar return to the bad old days of eminent domain abuse.
“Nothing stays down forever, particularly not things that are as profitable as using government power to steal people’s homes and small businesses.”
The good news, though, is that IJ has great radar. The heart of our eminent domain work—the heart of all our work, really—is that we are always focused on the next fight instead of the last one. That was the key to the Kelo backlash; rather than focusing on a loss in the Supreme Court, we immediately pivoted toward fighting for property rights in the states. That will be the key to the next phase of our eminent domain battle: years of preparation that will allow us to meet the next wave of eminent domain abuse head-on.
Ten years ago, a whole country’s worth of government officials learned that eminent domain abuse is more trouble than it’s worth. But a new generation of officials is rising—and IJ, with the help of supporters like you, will be happy to teach them that same lesson.
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