I’ll admit that I have some tender personal feelings about eminent domain. Our family's land in central Virginia lies in one proposed path of a multistate gas pipeline. There is active debate whether the government can use the principle of eminent domain to force landowners like us to sell part of our land for this private company’s development purposes.
Eminent domain is the power of a state, provincial or national government to take private property for public use. The Foxconn case in southeast Wisconsin brings the same issue directly back home.
Most of us know that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for a person’s right against self-incrimination. It also includes what’s known as the “Takings Clause,” which states that "private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation." Those simple words have been parsed and litigated repeatedly. What constitutes a “taking”? What’s just compensation? Those gray areas get even grayer still when it comes to considering what’s a public use.
What happens when a private company actively lobbies a government for the right to build something, say a gas pipeline or an electronics flat-screen plant, and they want access to enough land to build that thing? What kinds of promises can the government make to that company before it’s clearly a government taking, and not a private negotiation? Can it even make those promises?
Like so many aspects of the current Republican Party, principles tend to fade when it’s convenient on this issue. For example, in 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of local government using eminent domain to force someone to sell their property in the interest of private development, the decision was decried, including by Congressman Paul Ryan. Ryan wrote, “When someone works years to secure a home or establish a successful family store or restaurant, only to be forced by the government to give it up so a corporation can redevelop the land, that’s wrong. ... I took an oath to defend the Constitution, and this means protecting citizens’ right to own private property and prevent government from abusing its power." Ryan voted to pass a federal bill that protected against such uses of eminent domain.
Today, however, with the Foxconn project being proposed in his district, Ryan has suddenly lost his sense of outrage and is passing the buck. Residents who write him angry about losing their farms and homes receive letters back urging them to instead complain to their state and local officials.
Last week revealed the emptiness of that suggestion. Wisconsin’s state law allows the use of eminent domain in the case of blighted areas. So, lured by the prospect of thousands of new jobs and huge property value increases, the village of Mount Pleasant’s Board of Trustees voted six to one to declare 2,800 acres of beautiful, productive farmland and a few homes to be "blighted." The lone voice against this misrepresentation was a trustee named John Feest. “There’s nothing wrong with any of these properties. They are beautiful properties,” he said. “We’re using a technicality to forward the village’s interests. … I don’t agree with that.”
Feest deserves applause for upholding principles of fair treatment against railroading by state and local leaders. Would that more public officials did the same.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.
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