Eminent domain—the sovereign’s authority to take private property without the owner’s consent—is a terrible and awesome power, which is why the nation’s founders placed two key restrictions on its exercise: that government shall not take property unless it is for a valid public use and just compensation is paid.
Those restrictions are essential to the fight against eminent domain abuse. Take, for example, the public use requirement. That restriction is supposed to police against powerful private interests using the government’s power to circumvent the private market to take private property for their own private uses. But often, courts allow private parties to direct or influence eminent domain decisions in the name of economic development. The best example of such abuse is the recent decision Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), in which the United States Supreme Court held that the city could lawfully condemn 115 privately-owned properties and homes in the hopes that private interests would redevelop the neighborhood into an office park with hotels and restaurants, resulting in more property taxes and jobs for the community.
In response to that shocking decision, forty-four states enacted laws or amended their state constitutions to strengthen protections against that particular type of eminent domain abuse. But—just like the Constitution’s public use clause—legislative protections are only as meaningful as the government’s willingness to abide by them.
PLF filed an amicus brief asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to consider this very point in the case, St. Bernard Port, Harbor & Terminal District v. Violet Dock Port, Inc., LLC. There, an appellate court upheld the port district’s decision to condemn Violet Dock Port’s property and on-going business in order to hand it over to a competitor business—in the name of economic development.
PLF’s brief argues that the economic development rationale is frequently used to circumvent the constitutional prohibition against private takings. Moreover, that rationale is easily gamed to benefit the rich and politically connected at the expense of poor and minority communities.