Bush Limits Eminent-Domain Seizures

Associated Press
Saturday, June 24, 2006

President Bush ordered yesterday that federal agencies cannot seize private property except for public projects such as hospitals or roads. The move occurred on the one-year anniversary of a controversial Supreme Court decision that gave local governments broad power to bulldoze people's homes for commercial development.

The majority opinion in the Supreme Court case involving New London, Conn., homeowners limited the homeowners' rights by saying local governments could take private property for economic-development-related projects because the motive was to bring more jobs and tax revenue to a city.

But the court also noted that states are free to pass additional protections, and many have prohibited "takings" for shopping malls or other private projects.

Many conservatives -- particularly in the West -- see the decision as a dangerous interpretation of the "takings clause" in the Constitution's Fifth Amendment, which allows the government to seize property for public use with just compensation. They have argued such takings are an unjustified governmental abuse of individual rights. Cities, though, backed by some liberals, see the takings power as an important tool for urban renewal projects crucial to revitalizing cities.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) welcomed Bush's executive order. But because the federal government has only a limited role in such projects, he said Congress must do more. Cornyn has introduced legislation that would also bar federal funding for any state or local projects in which the land was obtained through eminent domain.

Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, which backed the city's right to take the homes in the Connecticut case, said Bush's order is relatively benign precisely because it does not include the funding ban Cornyn and other property rights advocates want.

"This order appears to apply to a null, or virtually null set of government actions," he said. "I'm not aware of any federal government agency that takes property for economic development."

Bush's order directs the attorney general to make sure all federal agencies follow the new policy. The kinds of projects that Bush's order says justify the taking of private property include parks, roads, medical facilities, government office buildings and utilities. Takings also would be allowed to prevent land uses that are harmful to the environment or public safety or to acquire abandoned property.

Bush's executive order tracks a trend being set in state legislatures. Since the Supreme Court decision, 31 states have passed laws restricting the use of eminent domain for economic development, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Governors in three states vetoed such legislation, but 21 state legislatures have passed measures that have been signed by their governors. Bills are sitting on the governor's desk in three states. The remaining four states are letting voters decide the issue through constitutional amendments on the ballot.

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