IJ Joined by Southern Christian Leadership Conference To Protect Rural Landowner
By Scott Bullock
On March 1, 2001, a year to the day after IJ announced its ultimately successful campaign to stop eminent domain abuse in the City of Pittsburgh, the Institute for Justice, joined by the local leader of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), announced that we would represent three families faced with eminent domain abuse in the State of Mississippi. We joined with the SCLC in the rotunda of the state capitol to declare our effort to protect private property rights.
In late 2000, the Mississippi legislature struck a deal with Nissan Motor Co. to build a new auto plant on the outskirts of Canton (about 15 miles north of Jackson). The State provided Nissan almost $300 million in subsidies and tax breaks and also handed over approximately 1,300 acres of state land to the automaker. But that wasn’t enough. Buried in the details of the Nissan legislation was the power of the state to use its eminent domain authority to condemn privately-owned land not for a public use, but to give to Nissan for the construction of the plant.
IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock announces our case to fight eminent domain abuse in Mississippi.
In February, the state exercised this power against three African-American property owners who have owned rural land in Madison County for generations and on which they and their families reside. Andrew Archie, Jr.’s family has owned the approximately 23-acre plot of land at issue in this case since 1941. Mr. Archie, now 68 years old, has lived on this family land since he was eight. He raised his children there and several members of his family currently live on the property in homes of their own. Lonzo Archie, one of Andrew’s sons, grew up on this land, hunting rabbits and fishing with his friends and family in a nearby spring. Now, he and his wife, Matlida, live on a one-acre plot of land next door that he bought from his father. Lonzo’s land and home are also being sought by the State for the Nissan plant, along with the three-acre plot right up the road owned by Percy Lee and Minnie Pearl Bouldin (yes, that’s really her name, but I have not yet spied a price tag on her hat). The Bouldins have owned their land for over 35 years and they raised their 13 children on it.
As readers of Liberty & Law know, eminent domain—the power to remove individuals from their homes and land—is one the most awesome and potentially despotic powers of government. That is why the constitutions of both the U.S. and Mississippi place two important limitations on its use. First, if the government takes your property, it must pay “just compensation”; but second, and most importantly, the government can only take your property in the first instance if it is for a “public use,” such as a road, a bridge or a public building like a post office.
The very reason why the public use clause exists is to prevent the government from taking property from one private owner and giving it to another (often more politically-connected) private party. That is the very thing the state seeks to do in Madison County. In this case, Nissan gets the land, Mississippi taxpayers get the bill, and the residents get the boot. The state’s actions against these landowners are blatantly unconstitutional.
And entirely unnecessary. The property owners in Madison County are not trying to stop the Nissan project. They merely wish to keep the land on which they raised their families and that they know and love so well. Indeed, all sides in this dispute can have their way. The land owned by the families is at the southernmost tip of the project area and constitutes a mere 27 acres. Nissan already has over 1,300 acres. The company simply does not need this tiny portion of land on the very outskirts of the project area.
IJ Client Lonzo Archie tells reporters, “I am angry, sad, that the state wants to take our land and turn it over to a private company. If our land goes a part of us goes. You can buy our house, but you cannot buy our home.”
The case bears striking similarities to one of the most notorious cases of eminent domain in history, Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit, handed down by the Michigan Supreme Court in the early 1980s. In that case, a bitterly divided court upheld the ability of Detroit to destroy Poletown, one of the last racially integrated neighborhoods in the city, so that General Motors could expand an automobile plant. Many Poletown residents were very tied to their neighborhood, with its unique mix of homes, businesses and churches, and did not want to leave (and some had to be literally dragged off their property to make way for the bulldozers). Even though the setting here is rural rather than the urban environment in Poletown, the Archie and Bouldin families also have particularly strong ties to the land they have proudly owned for generations. Indeed, it is no small accomplishment for black families to have owned acres of land in Mississippi since the 1940s, and they wish to remain on the property that holds their families’ memories and traditions.
As stated earlier, we have been working closely with the Jackson area chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its tireless leader Stephanie Parker-Weaver, known throughout the state as “Sister Hurricane.” (She, by the way, has started calling me “Brother Lightenin’,” but that’s a story for another day . . . .) The Institute and the SCLC have held news conferences together, and I attended and spoke at a prayer vigil held outside the courthouse the night before our first court hearing. We plan many more events and joint efforts built around the hearing on our motions to dismiss the condemnation actions currently scheduled for June 28.
Scott Bullock is a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice.