When the Goverment Robs Peter to Pay Paul, It Violates the Constitution

The Supreme Court’s 2005 decision that the government could use its eminent domain power to transfer private property to a different private actor – which promised to use it to generate more tax revenue – touched off a firestorm of criticism and created a movement to strengthen property rights.  (For the story behind that case, Kelo v. New London, I recommend Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage, for which Cato hosted a book forum in January.)   On Friday, Cato filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to review a decision ratifying a similar, even more blatant, government taking of private property for a non-public use.

In Empress Casino v. Giannoulias, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a statute transferring money from private riverboat casinos – and at that only the certain politically disfavored ones located in and around Chicago – to private horseracing tracks.  The state high court found that the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause does not apply to exactions of money from private entities, which ruling the casinos are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review.

Cato’s brief argues that the Court should grant certiorari for yet another reason: The Illinois statute (which coincidentally appeared in the transcript of the Blagojevich sting) is in clear violation of the Takings Clause’s “public use” requirement, impermissibly eroding protections for private property even under Kelo’s (flawed) standard. The statute does nothing more than rob Peter to pay Paul, a result that cannot be squared with the Fifth Amendment, which permits government takings only for public use, and then only if just compensation is paid. This case instead involves a naked transfer of the casinos’ revenues to the racetracks, with no meaningful restriction on how the racetracks use those funds — and does not remotely resemble any public use approved by the Supreme Court.

Permitting such a statute to stand will only encourage federal, state, and local governments to exact funds from one private actor for the exclusive benefit of another, transgressing the very property rights and economic liberties that inspired the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.