America's Constitution is the bedrock of our democracy. However, a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court threatens to erode it by allowing state and local governments to use their eminent domain authority to take away the property of any individual for almost any commercial economic reason. This is unprecedented in the history of our nation, and is an assault on America's private property rights.
This decision does not abide by the spirit, or the wording, of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that private property shall not be taken "for public use, without just compensation."
As retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in her dissenting opinion, this decision "eliminates any distinction between public and private use of property and effectively deletes the words 'for public use' from the Fifth Amendment." One of the most disastrous consequences of this decision is the new threat to affordable housing for lower income Americans, or those living in rural areas in states like Arizona.
America's founding fathers would bristle at this greedy lunge for private property by local governments.
It was John Adams who said, "Property is surely a right of mankind as real as liberty."
Private ownership of property is vital to both our freedom and our prosperity, and is essential to the fabric of our nation. In fact, much of our country's government is devoted to the preservation of personal property.
The court's decision allows cities to bulldoze private citizens' homes to make way for development like malls or hotels, and essentially means that no citizen's property is safe.
This action has far reaching implications, especially for the poor. Areas with lower income residents are now at greater risk because they may live in older neighborhoods in prime locations that make them attractive to economic development.
Other areas that are now more vulnerable include working class and middle income neighborhoods, or areas with a high percentage of minorities. Takings that result from this decision may also disproportionately affect ranchers and farmers who own large amounts of land on which they depend for their livelihood.
This decision not only represents a tangible loss of freedom and personal rights, but has the far reaching potential to affect Americans in all 50 states. If we allow governments to routinely displace homeowners and landowners for an ambiguous reason like economic benefit, we open ourselves up to abuse.
Where is the economic benefit of forcible sale of an individual's property? What does this do to economics of real estate, and small business owners who are forced to sell against their wishes? Where is the certainty of home ownership? Who is to say that once you buy a house it is really yours, that you will not be forced to sell for some elusive public benefit which in reality is a private benefit? These are some of the more troubling questions that arise as a result of this decision by this misguided Supreme Court.
How would the members of the Supreme Court feel if their private property was taken from them to build a hotel or shopping mall? In fact, a group in New Hampshire is pushing to build a hotel on land owned by Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter, who was one of the justices who voted in favor of the decision allowing city governments to take land from private owners for economic benefit. The goal of the group is to increase the economic benefit of the small town where the justice lives.
I am working with my colleagues to draft legislation to restore the property rights of all Americans and prohibit federal or state governments from using economic development as a justification for exercising the power of eminent domain. Freedom and private property in our country will be forever intertwined, because you cannot have one without the other. (Congressman Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., represents District 1.)