WASHINGTON – Contending that the Supreme Court has undermined a pillar of American society, the sanctity of the home, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday to block the court-approved seizure of private property (search) for use by developers.
The bill, passed 376-38, would withhold federal money from state and local governments that use powers of eminent domain to force businesses and homeowners to give up their property for commercial uses.
The Supreme Court (search), in a 5-4 ruling in June, recognized the power of local governments to seize property needed for private development projects that generate tax revenue. The decision drew criticism from private property, civil rights, farm and religious groups that said it was an abuse of the Fifth Amendment's "takings clause." (search) That language provides for the taking of private property, with fair compensation, for public use.
The court's June decision, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., changed established constitutional principles by holding that "any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party."
The ruling in Kelo v. City of New London allowed the Connecticut city to exercise state eminent domain law to require several homeowners to cede their property for commercial use.
With this "infamous" decision, said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., "homes and small businesses across the country have been placed in grave jeopardy and threatened by the government wrecking ball."
The bill, said Chip Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, which represented the Kelo homeowners before the Supreme Court, "highlights the fact that this nation's eminent domain and urban renewal laws need serious and substantial changes."
But opponents argued that the federal government should not be interceding in what should be a local issue. "We should not change federal law every time members of Congress disagree with the judgment of a locality when it uses eminent domain (search) for the purpose of economic development," said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.
The legislation is the latest, and most far-reaching, of several congressional responses to the court ruling. The House previously passed a measure to bar federal transportation money from going for improvements on land seized for private development. The Senate approved an amendment to a transportation spending bill applying similar restrictions. The bill now moves to the Senate, where Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has introduced companion legislation.
About half the states are also considering changes in their laws to prevent takings for private use.
The Bush administration, backing the House bill, said in a statement that "private property rights are the bedrock of the nation's economy and enjoy constitutionally protected status. They should also receive an appropriate level of protection by the federal government."
The House bill would cut off for two years all federal economic development funds to states and localities that use economic development as a rationale for property seizures. It also would bar the federal government from using eminent domain powers for economic development.
"By subjecting all projects to penalties, we are removing a loophole that localities can exploit by playing a 'shell game' with projects," said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, a chief sponsor.
The House, by a voice vote, approved Gingrey's proposal to bar states or localities in pursuit of more tax money from exercising eminent domain over nonprofit or tax-exempt religious organizations. Churches, he said, "should not have to fear because God does not pay enough in taxes."
Eminent domain, the right of government to take property for public use, is typically used for projects that benefit an entire community, such as highways, airports or schools.
Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion in Kelo, said in an August speech that while he had concerns about the results, the ruling was legally correct because the high court has "always allowed local policy-makers wide latitude in determining how best to achieve legitimate public goals."
Several lawmakers who opposed the House bill said eminent domain has long been used by local governments for economic development projects such as the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and the cleaning up of Times Square in New York. The District of Columbia is expected to use eminent domain to secure land for a new baseball stadium for the Washington Nationals.