Alaska editorial: Supreme Court's decision on property is shameful

Posted: Friday, July 01, 2005

This editorial first appeared in the Voice of the Times:

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision undermining the Fifth Amendment to expand governments' powers of eminent domain as a way of generating jobs and tax revenue can only be described as shameful.

The court, by its 5-4 ruling in a case involving New London, Conn., in essence said governments can take your home for a private development project that could produce more tax money and jobs. The court said property owners will be entitled to "just compensation."

New London officials wanted the land for a development "including a riverfront hotel, health club and offices that would attract tourists to the Thames riverfront.

The private land owners had refused to sell at any cost.

In a blistering dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the majority's abandonment of private property rights gives the rich and influential too much power at the expense of the middle-class.

"The specter of condemnation hangs over all property," O'Connor said. "Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

Only eight states - Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, South Carolina and Washington - bar eminent domain condemnations for economic development, unless the project is aimed at easing blight.

In Alaska, Reps. Bob Lynn, and Lesil McGuire, both Anchorage Republicans, are pushing for legislation to protect Alaska property owners from government abuse.

Eminent domain has its proper place as a necessary tool for land condemnations with a distinct and necessary public purpose. Bridges, schools and the like sometimes require the taking of private property - with all the protections of the Fifth Amendment - but its application must be judicious. Seizing private homes so that a private developer can make money and generate jobs and tax revenues for a city seems to us an abandonment of the Constitution.

In Anchorage, the city is trying to extend the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which likely will require extensive condemnation proceedings if it is successful. Opponents say that seizing private property for a bicycle and walking trail stretches the definition of "public use."

With any luck, Reps. Lynn and McGuire will be successful in their quest to protect Alaska's private property owners from government excess.

The Supreme Court had its chance. Sadly, it failed.

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