Commentary

Private Property Rights Under Fire in Missouri

It’s hard to top the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. New London, which enabled government officials to seize homes and businesses and transfer the land to private developers who stood to profit by them.

But Missouri has managed to make things worse. A state law allows nonprofit organizations to take private land for their own private uses — without paying the owners a dime. And on Feb. 7 the Missouri Court of Appeals refused even to consider whether the law is constitutional.

Passed in the 1990s, the little-known statute allows nonprofit organizations to ask judges to condemn property if it has been unoccupied for six months, if the taxes are delinquent and if the property is a “nuisance” that the nonprofit organization intends to “rehabilitate.” The law also defines “nuisance” as including property that is “blighted” — a term so vague that Missouri officials can take aim at virtually any property they want.

When Charles Lasby of Kansas City died in 2002, he owed back taxes on his home. Two years later, the House Rescue Corp., a nonprofit group that claims to fix up abandoned houses, petitioned the government to take the land. Since House Rescue didn’t notify Lasby’s heirs, they sold the property in May 2005. But that was five months after a court had allowed House Rescue to take the property — for free.

When the mix-up was discovered, the court ordered Karl Thomas, who had bought the home and paid the back taxes, to stop fixing it. Thomas argued that the law allowing nonprofits to take land violated the state and federal constitutions, but the court ruled against him. He filed an appeal, but only 48 hours later the Court of Appeals rejected his plea without explanation.

The idea behind the Missouri law seems to be to encourage private organizations to clean up deteriorating neighborhoods. But in practice it allows private groups to use government power to enrich themselves — despite the Constitution’s clear rules that government can only take property “for public use” and only when it pays “just compensation.”

Unfortunately, Thomas’ case is not unique. Three years ago, property owner Jerry Bray was astonished to discover that a Missouri court was about to give his land away to a Kansas City church. Bray, a bookstore owner, had spent $40,000 improving the property — which had never been declared a nuisance — only to discover that His Kingdom Church was planning to oust him from the land and that he was entitled to no compensation. With representation by Pacific Legal Foundation, Bray was able to keep his property.

This state law is only one of several examples of the Missouri’s hostility to private property rights. When the Kelo decision came out, Missourians were rightly outraged that government could seize their land and give it to politically influential developers. In the 1 1/2 years since, more than half of the other states have enacted new laws to protect property from seizure.

But Missouri lawmakers refused to join this movement. Instead, they passed SB 1944, which allows government to go on condemning property whenever it is “an economic liability” and give it to big-box retailers or development companies. And they refused to amend their constitution.

The Constitution was intended to protect us from people who think they know better than we do how to run our lives or how to manage our property. It’s time that the state’s judges and lawmakers protect people from the grasping hands of government.

James S. Burling is a lawyer at the Pacific Legal Foundation who represented Karl Thomas and Jerry Bray. Timothy Sandefur is a staff attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, and author of the Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st Century America.