Public Power, Private Gain: Mississippi

Overview

 

Mississippi has, at least for the moment, averted major problems with private condemnations. But there are warning signs of more trouble to come. The Mississippi legislature seems bent on taking property for private parties, and ignoring the outrage of their constituents against this abuse of power. The Mississippi Supreme Court also has counseled caution. Several bills to limit the power of eminent domain failed, while one expanding the power of eminent domain for private corporations sailed right through. The State seems undaunted by the public outcry that occurred when a state agency tried to take the homes of rural Mississippians for a Nissan plant. Because the state withdrew the condemnations, the Mississippi Supreme Court did not have an opportunity to rule on the issue of private condemnations. It did, however, uphold the right of owners to challenge whether condemnations are for public use. The events surrounding the Nissan condemnations also brought together activists and citizens in opposing eminent domain abuse, and that activism will no doubt continue in the coming years.

Legislative Actions

 

The Mississippi legislature had a number of bills on its agenda relating to eminent domain during its most recent session. Unfortunately, several that would have increased protections for property owners died in committee as the 2002 term expired. House Bill 966 would have amended Mississippi law to allow eminent domain and quick-take proceedings only for “governmental purposes,” and also would have guaranteed that “[t]itle to property taken through eminent domain shall never vest in a private entity or person.”371 House Bill 1250 would have gone even further, allowing government entities in the state to use eminent domain only “for the construction of public roads or for the construction of roads, buildings or other infrastructure for the state, political subdivisions of the state, public schools, public institutions of higher learning or public community or junior colleges.”372 House Bill 1251 would have guaranteed that when property taken through eminent domain is subsequently leased, the condemnee shall have a right of first refusal.373 House Bill 1315 would have provided for payment of costs incurred by a property owner if the owner prevails in an eminent domain challenge.374 None of these passed.

 

Instead, what did pass was a bill that weakened property rights in eminent domain cases. House Bill 1639 gives regional economic development alliances new powers to enter upon condemned property before purchase for the purpose of conducting engineering surveys.375 H.B. 1639 also takes direct aim at the Nissan plant court challenge by specifically authorizing development alliances to condemn properties for projects designated under the Mississippi Major Economic Impact Authority only if the County has received a binding commitment from a developer to undertake the project in that county.376 Governor Ronnie Musgrove signed H.B. 1639 into law on March 20, 2002.

 

 

Private Use Condemnations

 

Canton

In 2000, the Mississippi legislature passed the “Nissan Act,” which authorized the state to pour money and incentives into a proposed future Nissan manufacturing plant. The Nissan Act also gave the Mississippi Major Economic Impact Authority (MMEIA) the power to condemn property for the new facility.377

 

After pressuring most of the owners in the area to sell, the MMEIA condemned three homes in 2001 in order to transfer the land to Nissan. One of the homes belongs to Andrew Archie, who is in his late 60s, diabetic, and in poor health. He has lived on the land since he was eight years old. He lives there surrounded by his wife, children and other family members. His children, including Lonzo Archie, who owns one of the other homes being condemned, have never lived anywhere else. The condemnation would have required a total of 15 Archie family members to move.378 The MMEIA also sought to condemn the home of Percy and Minnie Bouldin, who had lived in their home for more than 40 years and raised their 13 children there. Percy did much of the construction of their house with his own hands.379 The case drew national attention, including the support of Martin Luther King III and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

 

Amazingly, both Nissan and the former head of the MMEIA publicly admitted that the project would go forward even if Nissan was unable to get the Archie and Bouldin homesteads. The three properties constitute a tiny portion of the overall area—28 acres at the southern end of the project out of a total of 1,400 acres. But the MMEIA explained that “What’s important is the message it would send to other companies is we are unable to do what we said we would do.”380 It wanted to save face with future developers, so that next time it promises to take someone’s home for private development, the developer will believe that the MMEIA can follow through.

 

The Archies and Bouldins are close friends, and both families, represented by the Institute for Justice, challenged the constitutionality of the MMEIA’s actions in condemning their homes. The trial court ruled against them on July 26, 2001,381 and the MMEIA planned to go forward with the demolitions. The Institute for Justice secured stays of the condemnations until the Mississippi Supreme Court could hear the case in mid-2002.382 Unable to proceed with the demolition, and after the case had been partially briefed in the Mississippi Supreme Court, the State voluntarily dismissed the cases against Andrew and Lonzo Archie and stopped its attempt to condemn the Archie properties. The Bouldins agreed to sell their long-time home.383 After the State dismissed the condemnations, Lonzo Archie expressed his relief. “We could not be more happy. My father and the rest of our family can now live out our days on our land.”384

 

*These numbers were compiled from news sources. Many cases go unreported, and news reports often do not specify the number of properties against which condemnations were filed or threatened.

†The Mississippi Supreme Court (includes condemnations for traditional public uses).

371 H.B. 966 § 1, 2002 Leg. Sess. (Miss. 2002).

372 H.B. 1250 § 1, 2002 Leg. Sess. (Miss. 2002).

373 See H.B. 1251, 2002 Leg. Sess. (Miss. 2002).

374 See H.B. 1315 § 9, 2002 Leg. Sess. (Miss. 2002).

375 See H.B. 1639 § 1, 2002 Leg. Sess. (Miss. 2002).

376 See H.B. 1639 § 2, 2002 Leg. Sess. (Miss. 2002).

377 Emily Wagster & Patrice Sawyer, “Legislator Says Nissan Project to be Announced Thursday,” The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), Nov. 7, 2000, at 1A; Miss. Code Ann. § 57-75-11.

378 Timothy R. Brown, “State Files for Eminent Domain to Grab Land for Nissan Project,” AP Wire, Feb. 9, 2001.

379 See Record in Bouldin v. Mississippi Major Economic Impact Authority, No. 2001-CA-01296 (Miss. Supreme Court).

380 David Firestone, “Black Families Resist Mississippi Land Push,” The New York Times, Sept. 10, 2001, at A20.

381 “Families to Appeal Ruling that State can Take Property for Nissan Plant,” AP Wire, July 28, 2001; see Mississippi Major Economic Impact Authority v. Archie, No. CO-2001-0082 (Madison County, Miss. Spec. Ct. July 26, 2001).

382 Heath A. Smith, “Nissan Land Hearings Delayed,” The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), Sept. 29, 2001, at 2B.

383 John Porretto, “Families Happy with Resolution of Nissan Land Case,” AP Wire, April 9, 2002.

384 Nikki Burns, “Agreement Reached Between State, Black Landowners,” The Mississippi Link, April 17, 2002, at 1.