Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

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Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Friday, March 31, 2006

Eminent Domain

The B'ham news has a report on a proposed law adding new restrictions to eminent domain. We already have one of those, passed after Kelo, but this one would further restrict when it could be used, and increase the amount paid.

This is an interesting issue. Everyone can agree that the facts in Kelo were outrageous: Big Company wants the property on which Little Guy's middle class home sits, so Crooked Local Officials condemn the property and give it to Big Company. On the other hand, I think everyone would agree that eminent domain is perfectly just when Absentee Landlord lets his property fall apart, dragging down the neighborhood with it.

The problem is how to write a law that allows the latter use, but not the former. How can you outlaw condemning middle class homes in favor of Stuf-Mart, without also outlawing the condemnation of crack houses in favor of new privately built residential homes? An absolute ban on using it for commercial purposes would cut out both. But an exception for 'blight' would eventually swallow the rule, because blight is in the eye of the beholder.

So, in my view, it comes down to what you think is the bigger problem. Do we have municipalities rampantly abusing eminent domain? If so, pass the strict law. Or do we have lots of slum lords whose laziness is ruining neighborhoods and devaluing the surrounding property? If so, keep the status quo. In other words, is eminent domain currently being used more for good purposes, or for bad purposes? If it is more often than not doing good things, then keep it fully available.

I have not seen any objective data on whether eminent domain in Alabama is being abused, or properly used. I know it goes against their normal modus operandi, but it would be nice if the legislature would try to discover all the relevent facts before they pass this law. Further restricting eminent domain may be a good idea, or it may be an overeaction to an out of state case that will primarily protect absentee slum lords while harming the property values of those living next to the derelicts.