Five years ago, in the landmark property rights case of Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court upheld the forced transfer of land from various homeowners by finding that “economic development” qualifies as a public purpose for purposes of satisfying the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. In doing so, however, the Court reaffirmed that the government may not “take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit.”
State and federal courts have since applied that pretext standard in widely differing ways while identifying four factors as indicators of pretext: evidence of pretextual intent, benefits that flow predominantly to a private party, haphazard planning, and a readily identifiable beneficiary. Moreover, since Kelo, 43 states have passed eminent domain reform laws that constrain or forbid “economic development” condemnations.
While many of these laws are strong enough to curtail abuse, in at least 19 states the restrictions are undercut by nearly unlimited definitions of “blight.” The state of New York has seen perhaps the most egregious examples of eminent-domain abuse in the post-Kelo era, and now provides the example of Columbia University’s collusion with several government agencies to have large swaths of Manhattan declared blighted and literally pave the way for the university’s expansion project. In this brazen example of eminent-domain abuse, the New York Court of Appeals (the highest state court) reversed a decision of the New York Appellate Division that relied extensively on Kelo’s pretext analysis and thus favored the small business owners challenging the Columbia-driven condemnations. The Court of Appeals failed even to cite Kelo and ignored all four pretext considerations, instead defining pretext so narrowly that even the most abusive forms of favoritism will escape judicial scrutiny.
Cato joined the Institute for Justice and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in a brief supporting the condemnees’ request that the Supreme Court review the case and address the widespread confusion about Kelo’s meaning in the context of pretextual takings. Our brief highlights the need for the Court to establish and enforce safeguards to protect citizens from takings effected for private purposes. We argue that this case is an excellent vehicle for the Court to define what qualifies a taking as “pretextual” and consider the weight to be accorded to each of the four criteria developed by the lower and state courts.
The Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case later this fall. The name of the case is Tuck-It-Away, Inc. v. New York State Urban Development Corp and you can read the full brief here (pdf). You can read more from Cato on property rights here.