I’ve been meaning to write about this for quite some time, since it actually happened a few weeks ago, but it kept slipping my mind. Now that he’s published an article about it, it’s as good a time as any. Timothy Sandefur of the always challenging Freespace blog, in his day job as an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, has helped secure an enormous victory for property rights in a case called Wayne County v. Hathcock. This decision by the Michigan Supreme Court overturns the Poletown decision, one of the oldest and most influential decisions regarding eminent domain in the country. The Poletown decision upheld the right of the city of Detroit to confiscate an entire neighborhood and give it to General Motors to build a factory there, the argument being that seizing property for private use that would benefit the city is the same as seizing property for public use, as the eminent domain laws required. The implications are obvious and very important, as Sandefur notes:
Eminent-domain abuse is an abuse of the entire political process. Its primary victims are minority property owners and the poor, who lack the lobbying power of a retail giant or pharmaceutical company. Last year, in Boynton Beach, Florida, the director of the city’s redevelopment agency told the city council that the reason he advocated condemning a large black neighborhood was “to compensate for the loss of one of the city’s major taxpayers. Our property-tax values are meager compared to other cities and this redevelopment is our attempt to enhance property values within this City…. In Boynton Beach, there is a significant amount of property that pays little or no taxes. Given that reality, we must do other things to compensate for that loss of tax dollars.” In other words, if the city throws out the poor folk, the city’s median income will go up. Perhaps that’s true. But that is just why groups as different as the Pacific Legal Foundation and the ACLU of Michigan joined forces to urge the Michigan supreme court to rein in the use of eminent domain, and protect the property rights of all citizens, particularly the most vulnerable.
In their decision last week, the justices agreed that such abuse cannot be tolerated: “if one’s ownership of private property is forever subject to the government’s determination that another private party would put one’s land to better use, then the ownership of real property is perpetually threatened by the expansion plans of any large discount retailer, ‘megastore,’ or the like….”
The message is clear: Michigan’s failed experiment with eminent domain is over. If businesses want land, they must pay for it like anyone else.
Mr. Sandefur was the author of the brief filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation and the ACLU of Michigan, and his arguments were endorsed by the court in this case. Let’s hope other states follow the lead of the Hathcock decision as they once did the Poletown decision. This is an enormous victory for property rights. Equally important, I think, is that it shows that libertarianism is not merely thinly veiled corporatism. There are libertarian ideals that stand as strongly against the authority of corporations as they do against the authority of governments. Well done, Timothy. A lot of people in the future will have you and your colleagues in this case to thank for the protections this case will afford them.