Chris Christie apparently forgot that he signed a bill authorizing a state university to condemn private property by using eminent domain

February 5

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has apparently forgotten that he recently signed a bill giving a New Jersey state university board the power to condemn private property [HT: Nick Sibilla]:

Asked Monday about a measure giving eminent domain powers to a new Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University joint board of governors, Gov. Christie said he was unaware of such a proposal.

“If a bill like that comes to my desk, I’ll have to take a close look at it,” Christie said, fielding a call from a listener on NJ 101.5′s Ask the Governor radio program. “I haven’t heard anything at this point about eminent domain being given to a university – I don’t think that’s the way it works.”

However, Christie signed the bill into law last month.

Using eminent domain to take private property for transfer to public universities is probably constitutional under the Fifth Amendment, which limits the use of eminent domain to takings that are for a “public use.” Virtually all scholars and jurists agree that government ownership of the condemned property is enough to satisfy the public use requirement. But university takings are still generally a bad idea, for reasons I outlined here and here.

Back in September, Governor Christie also signed a bill enacting an eminent domain “reform” law that actually increases the risk of abusive takings instead of alleviating it. It would be interesting to know whether he has forgotten about that bill as well.

Christie’s apparent ignorance about a law he signed is an example of the broader problem of political ignorance by powerful government officials. That problem is, in turn, linked with the issue of widespread political ignorance on the part of voters, who are the ones who elect and reelect ignorant politicians (though the latter’s ignorance on policy issues is usually less extreme than that of the average voter).

In fairness, it may be hard for Christie and other high officials to keep track of all the many issues they decide. Giving university officials the power to take people’s homes and businesses may just be a typical day’s work for a busy Garden State governor; he can’t be bothered to remember it even a month later, because he has so many other pressing responsibilities. But, as Christie himself puts it, this is the kind of decision that at least requires a “close look.” If he and other political leaders don’t have time to give the matter the consideration it deserves, that strengthens the case for cutting back on the range of issues the government is empowered to decide in the first place.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" (forthcoming) and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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