House acts against high court on eminent domain

The House sought Tuesday to undercut a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that gives state and local governments eminent domain authority to seize private property for economic development projects.

Sponsors of the bill, which passed by a voice vote, said it was needed because the 5-4 high court ruling skewed constitutional intentions that eminent domain apply only to land for public use projects.

That ruling, said bill cosponsor Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., justified "the government's taking of private property and giving it to a private business for use in the interest of creating a more lucrative tax base." As a result, he said, the "government's power of eminent domain has become almost limitless, providing citizens with few means to protect their property."

His legislation would withhold for two years all federal development aid to states or locales that take private property for economic development. It also bars the federal government from using eminent domain for economic development purposes and gives private property owners the right to take legal action if provisions of the legislation are violated.

Sensenbrenner, a conservative, was joined in sponsoring the legislation by Rep. Maxine Waters of California, a liberal Democrat and senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus. She said that economic development projects have "all too often been used by powerful interest groups to acquire land at the expense of the poor and politically weak."

The ruling in Kelo v. City of New London allowed the Connecticut city to exercise state eminent domain law to take over the property of several homeowners for commercial use. Justices said the court had always given local policymakers latitude in determining the legitimate public interests of their area.

But the decision drew fire from lawmakers and others who said the ruling was a dangerous interpretation of the "takings clause" in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution that allows the government to seize property for public use, with just compensation.

Traditionally, eminent domain has been used to obtain property needed for highways, airports or schools.

The only lawmaker to voice opposition to the legislation was Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. He said that since the Kelo decision more than 40 states have taken steps to amend their eminent domain laws to prevent abuses and "Congress should not now come charging in after seven years of work and presume to sit as a national zoning board."

He also noted that the bill exempts the Keystone XL pipeline from the eminent domain restrictions. That's the project that a Canadian company wants to build from Canada to Texas. President Barack Obama has rejected the pipeline, pending further review, but congressional Republicans have pushed hard for its construction.

The House passed similar legislation in November, 2005, five months after the court ruling, but the bill did not advance in the Senate. Senate action on this bill is unclear.