House votes to overturn Supreme Court decision on eminent domain

The House on Tuesday afternoon approved legislation that overturns a 2005 Supreme Court decision that affirmed the ability of states to take control of private property under the doctrine of eminent domain and hand it to another private developer.

That decision, Kelo v. City of New London, led to sharp complaints in particular from Republicans, who argued that the Court ignored the normal "public use" standard. Under that standard, eminent domain was seen as permissible only when the land or property taken would be retooled for public use.

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But in the Kelo case, the city took non-blighted private property and gave it to a property developer, a move many said was a bid to expand the city's tax revenues, and one that could erode private property protections.

The Private Property Rights Protection act, H.R. 1443, would prevent states from using eminent domain over property to be used for economic development, and establish a private right of action for property owners if a state or local government violates the new rule. It would also limit federal funds to states in which property is taken in violation of the law.

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House Republicans brought up the bill under a suspension of House rules, and after a brief debate, members passed it by voice vote. In addition to chief sponsor Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) spoke in favor of the bill, as did two Democrats, Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).

Waters co-sponsored the bill with Sensenbrenner, and both members noted that this rare alliance alone should prompt members to support the bill.

"This is a Sensenbrenner-Waters bill," Sensenbrenner said. "You will never see another Sensenbrenner-Waters bill, and that is probably one of the best reasons to vote in favor of it."

Waters said her support for the bill comes in part from the idea that poor people and minorities stand the most to lose from the Supreme Court's ruling.

"The government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more," she said. "The founders cannot have intended this perverse result."

Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) was the only member to speak against the bill. He argued that it has been seven years since the Kelo decision, and that many states have adjusted their own eminent domain laws in reaction.

"Congress should not now come charging in after seven years of work and presume to sit as a national zoning board, advocating to our national government the right to decide which states have gotten the balance right, and deciding which project are or are not appropriate," he said.

But support for the bill was never in doubt, in particular because similar legislation has already passed the House in years past. In 2009, for example, a bill from Sensenbrenner passed the House in a 376-38 vote.

Despite House passage, the White House did not put out any statement of support or opposition, as it often does just before major bills are brought up for a vote. House approval sends the bill to the Senate, which has not said publicly whether it would consider it.