Tag: California

March Madness: Eminent Domain Abuse Goes Coast-to-Coast

This is a big week for private property rights.  Two epic eminent domain struggles are playing out on opposite sides of the country. 

First, National City, California, is ground zero for eminent domain abuse.  City officials declared several hundred properties blighted even before conducting a blight study that was riddled with problems. The city wants to seize and bulldoze a youth community center (CYAC) that has transformed the lives of hundreds of low-income kids, so a wealthy developer can build high-rise luxury condos:


CYAC has numerous volunteers, including local law enforcement officers, providing free mentoring in boxing as well as academics.  The gym is famous for getting kids off the street and back into school.  As Rick Reilly explained in a feature in Sports Illustrated (boy, how I miss his inside-back-page column):

You know what, Mayor? National City doesn’t need more luxury condos. It needs good men like the Barragans teaching kids respect for neighbors and property, manners you could use a little of yourself.

And if you kick the Barragans out so some slick in Armani can buy a bigger yacht, I hope your car stereo gets jacked—weekly—by a kid who would’ve otherwise been lovingly coached on their jabs and their math and their lives.

Question: Can you declare politicians blighted?

This week, the gym’s battle is in trial before the Superior Court of California.  Represented by the Institute for Justice (who else?), a victory will help protect private property far beyond National City and clarify the use and misuse of blight designations.

Second, moving to the other side of the country, we go to Mount Holly, New Jersey:


Mount Holly is another classic case of “Robin Hood-in-Reverse.”  Officials have been dismantling a close-knit community known as the Gardens for the last decade so a Philadelphia developer can bulldoze the area and build more expensive residential properties.

Homeowners in the Gardens are primarily minorities and the elderly.  The row-style houses are being torn down while still attached to occupied homes, and officials refuse to offer the remaining homeowners replacement housing in the new redevelopment.  Further, owners are being offered less than half the amount it would cost to buy a similar home blocks away.

Here, IJ just launched a billboard campaign and did a study that concludes the eminent domain abuse project may result in a loss of a million taxpayer dollars a year, or one-tenth of the Township’s budget.

I previously wrote about eminent domain shenanigans here and you can read more from Cato on property rights here.

Recommended Reading

Assorted media clips worth catching up with over the holiday:

  • You’ve probably seen the ongoing scandal about how local officials used the southern California city of Bell to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense. A Los Angeles Times investigation finds that the city was milking small tradespeople too: “Legal experts point to a lack of due process and judicial oversight in hundreds of ‘civil compromises,’ in which plumbers, carpet cleaners and bottle-gatherers paid up to $1,000 for alleged code violations.”
  • “To get the check, you’ve got to medicate the child”: a horrifying Boston Globe series exposes how the incentives created by the federal SSI dependent disability program result in the overdiagnosis of disability among school-age kids. The result can be lifelong dependency, especially when grown kids realize that entering the labor force would make their families worse off by losing the “disability money.” [first, second, third parts, more]
  • A U.S. Congressman ousted by Ohio voters in last month’s election is suing a PAC that campaigned against him, saying its unfair ads deprived him of his “livelihood” [Cincinnati Enquirer, Politico]
  • The supposedly poisoned town of Hinkley, Calif., made famous by the Julia Roberts vehicle Erin Brockovich, turns out to have cancer rates a bit below the average, a new epidemiological study finds [more];
  • Aside from the morality aspects, there are really good reasons not to steal a meerkat (via).

Prop 19, Employment at Will, and Social Peace

Writing at CNN, my colleague Jeffrey Miron puts his finger on one reason for the disappointing defeat of California’s Prop 19:

Prop 19 failed also because it overreached. One feature attempted to protect the “rights” of employees who get fired or disciplined for using marijuana, including a provision that employers could only discipline marijuana use that “actually impairs job performance.” That is a much higher bar than required by current policy.

Like so many other developments in employment law in recent years, this would have chipped away at the basic principle of employment at will, which holds that in the absence of a contract specifying otherwise, either party to an employment relation may end that relation at any time for any reason or for no reason at all.

It was no doubt inevitable that the proposition would fare poorly among self-identified conservatives and older voters. But the “users’ rights” provisions were enough to raise doubts even among liberty-minded thinkers like David Henderson, who predicted that by signaling hostility toward freedom of association, such provisions would “make the drug-legalization hill even steeper.”

Marijuana of course remains illegal under federal law, which means that its consumption would at one and the same time have been 1) protected under employment-discrimination rules, and 2) illegal and subject to prison sentences. If this paradox seems vaguely familiar, maybe it’s because not that many years ago – before the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas – there were localities where consenting homosexual conduct was simultaneously protected under one set of laws, and unlawful under another. Indeed, there were more than a few advocacy groups that worked to promote the new controls over employer decisionmaking and yet never troubled themselves to work for repeal of the still-on-the-books anti-gay prohibitions. If the goal is to achieve social peace, however, rather than wage constant culture war on each other, you’d think the “leave people alone” message would hold more appeal than the “fall in line or you’ll hear from our lawyers” message.

Jeffrey Miron surmises, no doubt rightly, that the problem of undislodgeable tenured stoners in the workplace would be more the exception than the rule. Yet it’s worth noting that the issue has already arisen in various lawsuits in which workers with a doctor’s note recommending marijuana use have contested firings. Lawyers have also eagerly cobbled together suits over related issues, as with this class action noted less than two years ago at my other website, Overlawyered:

Starbucks’s job application asked prospective baristas if they’d been convicted of a crime in the past seven years and added for “CALIFORNIA APPLICANTS ONLY”, at the end, that minor marijuana possession convictions more than two years old didn’t have to be disclosed, in accord with a state law along those lines. Entrepreneurial lawyers then tried to steam-press $26 million or so out of the coffee chain on the following theory: that the clarification was placed too far down the application after the original question; that Starbucks had therefore violated the California Labor Code; and that each and every Starbucks job applicant in California since June 2004, perhaps 135,000 persons, was owed $200 in statutory damages regardless of whether they had suffered any harm. Per John Sullivan of the Civil Justice Association of California, the lawyers also took the position that “it didn’t matter that two of the three job applicants who signed on as named plaintiffs testified in court that they read the entire application and knew they didn’t have to mention a marijuana conviction (which neither had anyway!)” The court refused to certify the class and made the following observations (courtesy CJAC blog):

* “There are better ways to filter out impermissible questions on job applications than allowing ‘lawyer bounty hunter’ lawsuits brought on behalf of tens of thousands of unaffected job applicants. Plaintiffs’ strained efforts to use the marijuana reform legislation to recover millions of dollars from Starbucks gives a bizarre new dimension to the every day expressions ‘coffee joint’ and ‘coffee pot.’”… “The civil justice system is not well-served by turning Starbucks into a Daddy Warbucks.”

Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy notes that “the case against the War on Drugs and other ‘morals’ regulations is very similar to the standard conservative critique of economic regulation.” But if a much-needed rollback of morals regulation is made the excuse for an expansion of economic regulation, there may be grounds to wonder whether the goal is truly freedom at all.

Prop. 19 Roundup

Here’s some recent commentary on California’s Prop. 19 ballot initiative:

  • Today, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof makes the case against the war on cannabis.  Although there is no mention of Cato, Kristoff mentions the work of our senior fellow, Jeff Miron, and links to our report on the Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition.  Kristoff also mentions Portugal’s drug decriminalization policies and links to a Time Magazine article that highlights the Cato report on that subject by Glenn Greenwald.
  • Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch make the case that Prop. 19 is the most important item before the voters in this election cycle.  Even more important than whether Barbara Boxer can continue her work in the Senate?  Yes, read the whole thing.  Dan Mitchell has additional thoughts here.
  • George Soros is in the news for helping the Prop. 19 effort with a one million dollar contribution.  He explained his reasons for supporting Prop. 19 in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

For additional Cato scholarship on drug policy, go here.

Regulator, Leave Those Kids Alone

“These kids today and their violent [blank]….” This refrain has been around for as long as there have been kids – and elders to shake their fists at them. In the 19th century, dime novels and “penny dreadfuls” were blamed for social ills and juvenile delinquency. In the 1950s, for example, psychologist Fredric Wertham’s attack on comic books – in his bluntly titled book Seduction of the Innocent – so ignited the national ire that Congress held hearings on the cartoon menace. In response, the comic book industry voluntarily adopted a ratings system. Similarly, backlash against the movie industry and the music industry (e.g., Tipper Gore’s attack on gangsta rap) caused those respective industries to also adopt voluntary ratings systems.

The videogame industry also adopted an effective and responsive ratings system after congressional hearings in the early ’90s. Thinking this ratings system ineffective, however, California passed a violent videogame law, which prohibits minors from purchasing games that are deemed “deviant,” “patently offensive,” and lacking in artistic or literary merit. The gaming industry challenged the California law and the Ninth Circuit struck it down on First Amendment grounds.

California now seeks to overturn the lower court’s ruling by arguing that violent videogames deserve an exemption from First Amendment protection. Cato’s brief supports the videogame manufacturers and highlights not only the oft-repeated and oft-overblown stories of the “seduction of the innocent,” but the less-repeated stories of the effectiveness and preferability of industry self-regulation.

We show that not only does self-regulation avoid touchy First Amendment issues but that entertainment industries take self-regulation very seriously. Moreover, evidence from the Federal Trade Commission shows that the existing videogame ratings system works more effectively than any other regulatory method. Adding a level of governmental control, even if were constitutional, would be counterproductive.

The case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association will be argued November 2 (coincidentally election day).

On Tonight’s John Stossel Show (FBN)

I’m a guest on tonight’s John Stossel program on the Fox Business Network, on the subject of the consequences of the twenty-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The show was shot live to tape yesterday in New York and was fascinating throughout; even those who think they know this subject well will learn a lot. I’m also quoted in John’s latest syndicated column on the same issue.

Among the highlights of the taping: a disabled-rights lobbyist defended several extreme applications of the law, including the notion that it might be appropriate to force networks to hire someone who suffers from stuttering as on-air television talent. We also shed some light on the state of California’s up-to-$4,000-a-violation bounty system for freelancers who identify ADA violations in Main Street businesses, and the case for at least requiring complainants to give business owners notice and an opportunity to fix an ADA violation before suing. (The disabled-rights lobby has managed to stifle that proposal in Congress for years.) Also mentioned: the suit against the Chipotle restaurant chain recently covered in this space.

Other recent coverage of the ADA here and here.

Guess Who’s Behind the New Fire-Sprinkler Mandates

California just adopted effective next year a requirement that all new one- and two-family dwellings include indoor sprinkler systems. Other states are debating similar mandates, spurred by changes to national building code standards. Earlier legal mandates have required the inclusion of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms, but the cost of those devices is relatively minor, whereas full-blown sprinkler systems add measurably to the cost of a new home, as well as posing challenges in such areas as maintenance, aesthetics, and risk of property damage through accidental activation.

It will surprise not a single reader of these columns, I suspect, to learn that the fire sprinkler industry has been a major force in pushing the new mandate. As for the opposition, home builders have managed to mount a bit of resistance – New Jersey, for example, saw the current depressed state of the residential construction business as reason to postpone its mandate for a year. But the builders are pretty much on their own in the fight, since future buyers of new homes are a group with no organized political presence whatsoever.

Real estate blogger Christopher Fountain writes that he’s “never heard of a home buyer voluntarily ordering this equipment when building a house, so it sounds to me like one more instance of people who know better dictating to those who don’t.” Exactly. A South Carolina paper quotes a state official as saying if buyers feel priced out of the new home market by the cost of the mandate, they have other ways to save money “such as choosing less expensive flooring or countertops, or not installing yard sprinklers”. Easy to make someone else’s budget decisions for them, isn’t it? And shouldn’t the “affordable housing” community be taking more of an interest?