Volume 13, Issue 43 ~ October 27 - November 2, 2005


These Property Rights, Yes; Whimsical Constitutional Revision, No

To some folks, property rights is a religion. We’ve always considered dedicated property-rights advocates a little nutty, not to mention greedy, for putting their own well-being ahead of the public good.Nonetheless, we have to agree with them with regard to a U.S. Supreme Court case that is reverberating in Maryland.

In a case that bubbled up from Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled over the summer that local governments can force property owners to sell their land to make way for private economic development — even if the property is well-kept and the development risky.

Maryland courts, too, have recognized the right of the state to condemn property for economic development. Supreme Court justices even cited a Maryland case in the Connecticut ruling, Kelo v. City of New London. Our opinion — and we agree with the pro-property forces here — is that such power violates the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the taking of private property by government except for “public use.”
In D.C., of course, officials praised the ruling as they set about seizing land for the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark.

But what about local politicians who think it’s fine to condemn your land for a subdivision or a shopping center proposed by their political contributors?Enter GOP legislators in Maryland, who last week proposed a constitutional amendment to ban Maryland governments from taking private property for economic development.“A baseline principle, one that Republicans believe in very strongly, is the right to private property, and the government should not have the right to confiscate that property,” observed Eastern Shore’s Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate minority leader.We say right sentiment — but wrong tactics.
As usual, we think it unwise to tinker with the constitution, no matter the issue. Besides their pro-property motivations, GOP legislators are looking for flashy campaign issues.

The politicans and the citizens of Maryland would be better served by legislation that sets limits on condemnation and spells out clearly the definition of public use.Laws are like newspapers; both are periodicals reflecting moments in time. Constitutions, whether our nation’s or our state’s, are great books, written to stand the test of time.

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