Tuesday's recall of St. Louis Alderman Thomas Bauer puts all Missouri public officials on notice: voters won't put up with politicians who abuse the power of eminent domain for the benefit of well-connected private developers. Voters in the 24th Ward were outraged after Bauer attempted to seize several homes and businesses at the corner of Manchester and McCausland in order to make room for a QuikTrip gas station.
It's inspiring to see ordinary Missourians standing up for their rights in the political process, but the fact that the effort got as far as it did only highlights how the courts have been shirking their duty to protect private property. With Tuesday’s victory under their belts, Missouri property owners should keep up the pressure on elected officials to reform the state's eminent domain system. Homeowners shouldn't be forced to take the drastic step of recalling their elected officials just to keep their homes.
Eminent domain, the power of government officials to seize private property, is supposed to be used for public infrastructure like roads and courthouses. The United States Constitution says that property may only be taken "for public use," and only with "just compensation." But over the years, that power has been abused by local officials who define "public use" in increasingly questionable ways.
The issue reached the Supreme Court this summer in the case of Kelo v. New London. The city of New London, Connecticut, sought to condemn more than 100 private homes and businesses to make room for new research facility being planned by drug maker Pfizer. The only "public use" the city could cite was "economic development"—in essence, that the new owners would pay higher property taxes than the old ones.
The court ruled for the city in a bitterly divided 5-4 decision. In an eloquent dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor charged that as a result of the decision, "The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory." Bauer's QuikTrip boondoggle demonstrates the truth of O'Connor's warning. He claims that the project qualifies as a "public use" because QuikTrip has promised to pay for a new right-turn lane at the intersection. But it's not clear why it's necessary to condemn several homes and businesses just to make room for a turn lane. And if chipping in some money for public infrastructure transforms any private development into a public use, then none of our homes or businesses are safe.
Fortunately for Missourians, help may be on the way. The Kelo decision focused on the protections available under the United States Constitution, but individual states are free to enact stronger protections for property rights at the state level. Governor Blunt has created a Task Force on Eminent Domain, which will make recommendations in December on how to reform Missouri’s eminent domain system.
It's great that voters responded when one elected official stepped over the line, but the fact that the recall was necessary shows the inadequacy of Missouri's legal protections for private property. Missouri’s eminent domain system needs to be fixed so that homeowners can once again be sure that their rights will be upheld in court. Our laws shouldn’t allow politicians like Thomas Bauer to play political games with their constituents' homes and businesses.
Timothy B. Lee is an editor at the Show-Me Institute.