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US States Fight Back to Protect Rights of Property Owners

Thirty-four of the 50 states have passed laws to limit the use of eminent domain by local governments. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

Local governments in the United States have always had a constitutional right to seize private property, with fair payment. This right is called eminent domain. Eminent domain has traditionally been limited to the taking of land for public uses like roads, schools or bridges.

But on June twenty-third of two thousand five, the Supreme Court decided the case of Kelo versus the City of New London, Connecticut. The decision gave local governments the right to take private property for the purpose of economic development.

That means a homeowner or business owner could be forced to move not only for reasons of public use, but also for private use. Owners could have their property condemned if officials decide that another owner could make more money on that property.

Five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court supported the decision. Four opposed it.

Supporters say eminent domain is needed to improve economically depressed areas and create growth and new jobs.

But all across the country, opinion studies showed that most people did not feel the decision was fair.

The Castle Coalition is a nonprofit group that is part of the Institute for Justice, which fought the Kelo case before the Supreme Court. The coalition says the threatened use of eminent domain for private development has greatly increased over the past year. The group published a report in June, the anniversary of the Kelo decision.

It said that in one year, local governments had threatened or condemned nearly six thousand properties for private development. That, it said, was equal to more than half the number for the five-year period between nineteen ninety-eight and two thousand two.

But, while the number of threats increased sharply, officials rarely had to act on their threats. The report said local officials took steps to condemn three hundred fifty-four properties for private use in the year following the Kelo decision. The coalition says owners largely choose not to fight what they believe will be a hopeless battle.

Under the ruling, no one's property is safe unless individual states pass their own laws to restrict eminent domain. And that is just what they have done.

The Castle Coalition reported last month that thirty-four of the fifty states have passed laws that aim to restrict eminent domain. That includes nine states where voters passed ballot measures in the November seventh elections.

Some state laws do more to protect the rights of property owners than others. Lisa Knepper of the Institute for Justice says it is still too soon to tell the effects of these new laws. But efforts are also being made to pass federal legislation to protect all property owners from eminent domain for private development.

IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English was written by Brianna Blake. To learn more about subjects in the news, and to download MP3 files and transcripts of our programs, go to I'm Steve Ember.