Eminent domain abuse violates private property rights

Since our country was founded, private property has served as a cornerstone of our freedoms. The constitutional right to private property is based on the principle that government should not unreasonably interfere with the use of one’s property. 

In the Declaration of Colonial Rights, the First Continental Congress explicitly stated that, “[Americans] are entitled to life, liberty, and property, and they have never ceded to any sovereign power … a right to dispose of either without their consent.”

This served as the foundation for the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states, “No person shall be deprived of … property, without due process of law.” This provision, known as the Takings Clause, protects citizens from unreasonable government seizure of private property.  

{mosads}The government has repeatedly cited the Takings Clause as justification for taking private property without the landowner’s consent. Although this practice, known as “eminent domain,” has occurred since the early days of our country, the government had been restricted from taking private property except when required for the public good, such as building a fort during a time of war.

However, a Supreme Court decision in 2005 severally undermined the protections afforded by the Takings Clause and greatly expanded the government’s power to seize private property.

In Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court held that “economic development” constituted a “public use” that justified the taking of private property through eminent domain. According to this decision, the government can utilize eminent domain to seize your property whenever the government deems it necessary for “economic development.”

Consider the implications of this decision:

If the government decides to undertake an “economic development” project, the government can seize your family-owned farm and sell the property to a private developer to build a new factory. 

In the dissenting opinion to the Kelo decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned that this expansion of the Takings Clause subverted the constitutional limitation on the government’s power: “Under the banner of economic development, all private property is vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner.”

Is this not what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted the Fifth Amendment.  

The Kelo decision is based on the premise that “Big Government” is more capable of determining what serves the best interest of local landowners than the landowners themselves. To understand the flaws of this perspective, look no further than New London, Conn.: the city confiscated Ms. Kelo’s home so that a pharmaceutical corporation could build a new facility. The city claimed that seizing this property under eminent domain was necessary to complete a “redevelopment project.”

Today, 10 years after the Kelo decision, the property where Ms. Kelo’s home once stood is a vacant and desolate lot. After spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money and forcing several hard-working families from their homes, this economic development plan was a complete failure. The abandoned 90-acre lot in the heart of New London is a chilling example of the danger posed by government overreach and intrusion into the lives of American citizens.  

As illustrated by this example, the power to take property through eminent domain is frequently abused by the government for unnecessary and unreasonable purposes. This practice harms landowners by forcing them to expend their valuable resources (through expensive legal proceedings) to simply keep the property they have owned for decades. This is inherently unfair to hard-working Americans.

Eminent domain takings are especially concerning in the context of “urban renewal.” According to Ilya Somin, law professor at George Mason University and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, transferring property to private interests (for “economic development”) tends to “victimize the poor, racial minorities, and the politically weak.” Mr. Somin points out that eminent domain takings “disproportionately occur in poor and minority neighborhoods,” which inflicts “great harm” on the individual landowners and their communities.

I care about the rights of landowners. The constitutional right to private property must be defended. That is why I created the Private Property Rights Caucus and introduced the Defense of Property Rights Act.

The Private Property Rights Caucus provides a platform to educate members of Congress on the importance of property rights, demonstrate how landowners across the country are being adversely affected by government action, and discuss practical solutions to protect the constitutional rights of property owners. 

The Defense of Property Rights Act provides a practical solution. This legislation protects landowners by creating a safeguard against unfair and unreasonable government actions that violate their property rights. This provides citizens with an opportunity to seek redress in federal court when government action significantly impairs the value of their property or unreasonably restricts the use of their property.

As Americans, we must not be complacent when the government infringes on our individual liberties and restricts our constitutional rights; we must ensure that government is kept in check and does not overreach the limitations placed on its power. The Defense of Property Rights Act is an important and necessary step toward achieving that objective and keeping government in its proper place. That serves the interests of the people rather than the interests of “Big Government.”


Reed has served as a representative of New York since 2010 and is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. He is chairman of the Private Property Rights Caucus.


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