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When Government Uses 'Eminent Domain,' What's Yours Is Mine


Last month, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanded "eminent domain." This is the concept that the government has domain over all lands and can seize what it likes for projects that benefit the public. If a town needs a school -- and your house stands in the way -- say goodbye to the house.

In a wave of "urban renewal" about 50 years ago, for instance, whole neighborhoods were demolished to make room for subsidized public housing. By order of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, authorities must pay owners what's called "fair value" if their property is seized. But it's hard to put a price on the emotional attachment to one's home.

In June, the Supreme Court gave state and local governments permission to expand eminent domain to foster private development -- luxury housing, shopping centers, research parks -- even golf courses. The rationale is that the jobs and tax revenue these projects will generate represent a greater public good than the narrow interests of homeowners.

A little tongue-in-cheek humor shone through it all, briefly. A man in the New Hampshire hometown of Supreme Court Justice David Souter -- who joined the majority in broadening the right of eminent domain -- petitioned officials to tear down Justice Souter's house in favor of a nice hotel that would create lots of jobs.

But the mood is less lighthearted elsewhere. As the Christian Science Monitor newspaper points out -- bulldozing private property against the owner's will to build another mall or housing development hits people "literally, close to their homes." Outraged opponents of this idea are putting lawmakers on notice: if you vote to seize people's homes for some shopping center or condominium complex, we'll make very sure everyone in town knows about it come the next election.

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