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Pols Seek to Tighten Eminent Domain Rules

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

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WASHINGTON — 

Reaction continues to reverberate on Capitol Hill in response to the Supreme Court's ruling that local governments may take private property for private economic development that could benefit the community as a whole.

Lawmakers are considering a new legislative effort to curb some of the effects of that decision.

Click in the box to the right to watch a report by FOX News' Megyn Kendall.

In a ruling handed down last week, the high court decided that Susette Kelo's (search) home could be seized by the state of Connecticut under the 5th Amendment's "takings clause," which allows the government to seize any private property if it's for "public use" and the landowner receives "fair compensation."

Historically, the government has used that power, commonly referred to as "eminent domain," to acquire land for things like railroads, highways and public hospitals.

But the city of New London wants Kelo's home and a handful of others for a riverfront shopping center and condominiums.

Similar projects are happening in other places, too. The city of St. Louis, Mo., is trying to force 79-year-old Reba Thompson (search) out of her family home to make way for a $40 million shopping center.

In the case decided last week, Kelo argued these business projects don't amount to "public use," but the high court in an opinion authored by Justice John Paul Stevens (search) disagreed, finding the goal of "economic development" can justify these seizures.

"For people that believe in private property, this is a nightmare," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.

Four members of the U.S. Supreme Court said the ruling flies in the face of "basic limitations on government power," and the ruling outraged private landowners, prompting cries for legislation to protect them. On Monday, Sen. John Cornyn (search), R-Texas, obliged.

"This power to seize homes, small businesses, and other private property should be reserved only for true public uses. Most importantly, the power of eminent domain should not be used simply to further private economic development," Cornyn said in introducing legislation.

The high court did acknowledge that states are welcome to set tougher standards for government takings than the baseline in the Constitution, emphasizing that "nothing in our opinion precludes any state from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power."

Cornyn's bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson (search), D-Fla., does attempt to encourage states to pass comparable laws if they haven't already done so. A similar bill was introduced in the House on Tuesday by Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont.

But Turley and others question whether Cornyn's bill, purporting to change the federal law, will really do any good.

"The vast majority of these cases involve local and state officials. They're not federal questions, and Congress cannot restrict the use of eminent domain on a local level," he said.