Washington, D.C.-The Special Court of Eminent Domain in Madison County, Mississippi, yesterday ruled that the State may exercise its power of eminent domain to take private property and give it to a private company in the name of economic development. The Institute for Justice announced that the families it represents fighting eminent domain will appeal this decision. The court did, however, rule in the property owners’ favor on the State’s attempted use of “quick-take” procedures. Quick-take would have allowed the State to can gain immediate entry to the land if it could demonstrate that “irreparable harm” would result from any delay. The court ruled that the State may use quick-take authority only to gain immediate access to land the defendants own that is currently slated to be used for roads.
In February, the State initiated condemnation proceedings against several property owners in Canton, Mississippi, to clear their land so Nissan could build an auto plant. Several of the property owners, represented by the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm, challenged the proposed takings, arguing that their land would be given to Nissan and used for purely private purposes in violation of the Mississippi Constitution. The Mississippi Constitution, like the federal and most state constitutions, permits the State to take land only for “public use.”
“The decision is not terribly surprising given that the judge had already ruled in a related case that the State could take land for the Nissan Project,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel at the Institute. “What is interesting about this decision is how troubled the judge seemed by the direction in which eminent domain is headed in both Mississippi and the nation.”
The opinion stated, “This decision and its interpretation of public use brings our state to the edge of a very slippery slope. The extent to which and the circumstances under which the government may take its citizens’ property by eminent domain for the purpose of ‘economic development’ is extremely unclear.”
“Although we disagree emphatically with the court’s conclusion that the Mississippi Supreme Court has sanctioned the use of eminent domain in this case, we can appreciate the difficulty it had understanding the limits to the power once states are permitted to take land from one private owner and simply give it to another,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice who argued the case. “We have argued all along that such an expansive interpretation of public use makes the power of eminent domain limitless and the courts’ ability to prevent abuses virtually impossible.”
The court seemed to echo this sentiment: “Should the Court’s ruling on the issue of public use stand, sooner or later . . . legislative or judicial limitations on the use of eminent domain for this purpose must be considered, lest eminent domain become a power exercisable in fact by private entities through political bodies.”
The case is vitally important not only to these property owners but to every Mississippi property owner.
“If the State can condemn these homes and this land for such a clearly private use, then no property in Mississippi is safe,” Bullock concluded. “Property owners can never know when the government will decide that their land can be better used by a business or a developer. We will end up not with a government of, by and for the people, but a government of, by and for the highest bidder.”
The Institute for Justice will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Mississippi.
The Institute is the nation’s leading legal advocate against eminent domain abuse. The Institute litigates eminent domain cases throughout the country and was the organization that won a case on behalf of a widow whose house was sought by Donald Trump and a New Jersey government agency. In 2000, the Institute also spearheaded a successful campaign against eminent domain abuse in downtown Pittsburgh, where the mayor proposed taking more than 60 buildings and 120 privately-owned businesses to give the property to a developer to build an urban shopping mall. In November 2000, the mayor abandoned his plans and pledged not to use eminent domain in future efforts to develop the area. In October 2000, the Institute filed a lawsuit in federal district court in New York challenging New York’s unconstitutional eminent domain procedures and in December 2000, the Institute launched a legal challenge to the use of eminent domain in New London, Connecticut, where the government and a private corporation want to take homes and businesses to build privately owned office buildings and other unspecified development projects.