Ruling Underscores Urgent Need for Eminent Domain Reform
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
CONTACT: Bob Ewing
March 18, 2008
Arlington, Va.-Today, the Supreme Court of Missouri held, 6-1, that both large (“chartered”) and small (“non-chartered”) cities have the power to use eminent domain under the state’s redevelopment or “TIF” laws to take land from private owners to hand over to developers.
The case concerns the fate of Homer Tourkakis, a dentist from Arnold—a suburb of St. Louis—whose offices have been condemned so private developers can build big-box stores. Last year, a judge ruled in favor of Dr. Tourkakis and dismissed the land grab as unconstitutional.
“Missouri cities are among the worst abusers of eminent domain in the nation,” said Institute for Justice (IJ) Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, the lawyer who argued the landmark eminent domain case, Kelo v. New London, at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. The Institute filed a brief in the Missouri Supreme Court on behalf of IJ and the newly appointed state eminent domain ombudsman, Anthony Martin. “This decision, which leaves the door open for any city in Missouri to take homes and businesses for private development, underscores the vital need to reform the state’s eminent domain laws,” said Bullock.
The specific issue in this case was what type of Missouri city has the ability to use eminent domain in so-called blighted areas. A state law dating from the 1940s permits large urban areas to engage in “slum clearance,” which often has had disastrous results. Now, however, small communities across the state also use eminent domain not to remove blight, but so city officials might possibly gain the tax dollars generated by private commercial development. Until today’s decision, it was unclear whether smaller cities could use eminent domain for these purposes.
The Court did make it clear, though, that it was not deciding any other issue in the case, including whether the property owned by Dr. Tourkakis was in fact blighted or whether the taking was for a public or private use. Dr. Tourkakis can still bring those challenges.
The decision will have statewide consequences. For instance, on the other side of Missouri, in the small town of Sugar Creek, the Marth family has been closely watching the outcome of the Arnold case because the city has threatened to take their home, which has been in the family since the 1920s, so a private developer can build a big-box shopping center.
“Unless the law is changed, this decision will make countless Missourians completely vulnerable to government-sanctioned land grabs for the benefit of private developers,” added IJ Senior Attorney Bert Gall, one of the authors of IJ’s brief.
There is an effort underway in Missouri, spearheaded by Missouri Citizens for Property Rights, to place an initiative on the November ballot that would end eminent domain for private development purposes.