Eminent Domain and “The Public Interest”

For the past four years a New Jersey state agency known as the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) has been trying to bulldoze a family home near the Atlantic City boardwalk on behalf of private developers and a shadowy real estate scheme. On Friday this overreaching state agency finally received a well-deserved bench slap from the state courts.

The case of Casino Reinvestment Development Authority v. Birnbaum first reared its head in 2012 after Atlantic City officials announced the existence of something called the “South Inlet Mixed Use Development Project.” According to state officials, this project would “complement the new Revel Casino and assist with the demands created by the resort.” The state never got around to detailing the “project” in any specifics, however, and the Revel Casino shortly went bankrupt. But that didn’t stop the CRDA from trying to seize the family home of a man named Charlie Birnbaum. But Birnbaum fought back, retaining the services of the lawyers at the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm that specializes in defending property owners like Birnbaum from this sort of government bedevilment. On Friday Birnbaum and his legal team prevailed in court.

“This Court concludes that the CRDA’s decision to condemn the Birnbaums’ property is a manifest abuse of the eminent domain power and in this Court’s opinion is not consistent with the statutory condemnation authority of the CRDA,” New Jersey Superio Court Judge Julio Mendez declared. “The CRDA’s condemnation is denied.”

It’s worth noting that Donald Trump was also slapped down in a similar case back in the 1990s, when he tried to use eminent domain power to build a parking lot for his casino business.

Justice sometimes prevails, even today. But what do claims of eminent domain depend upon? Something called “the public interest.” The problem with “the public interest” is that it’s entirely subjective. One man’s public interest is another man’s house.

Eminent domain cases are an opportunity to defend individual and property rights in a principled way. Thank goodness for organizations like the Institute for Justice, who provide the legal staff and principled thinking to do so.

But the error of thinking that “the public interest” trumps individual rights is everywhere, not just in obvious cases like this one.

For example, when we say there must be universal health insurance, or universal public school education, or universal free college, or universal food stamps, or universal retirement insurance, or guaranteed free cell phones, on and on and on…all such “rights” are claimed as the public interest. People cheer these decisions, and even politicians who initially oppose them end up voting for funding increases in these programs as the years go by.

These programs violate the rights of the individual every bit as much as government seizing someone’s house to suit the needs of a politician or a politically connected business person. Because in funding these programs, you’re forcing people to pay for them. Or you’re saddling people not yet born with debt to pay for them; it’s just as wrong. There’s no limit to what government may do in the name of the “public interest,” because the public interest is whatever you (or another) wishes or feels it to be.

What happens when you put the so-called public interest above the rights of the individual? You get deficits. You get unimaginable, unsustainable debt. You get a corrupt government which becomes more about pull and connection than about actual protection of individual rights. You get precisely what we have today, and it’s getting worse.

Also, you erode and ultimately destroy America’s already tattered Bill of Rights. The First and Second Amendments protect two of the most basic rights: the right to free speech and the right to physical, literal self-defense. Under a one-party system particularly, which is what America has become with a Democratic lock on the White House and a completely compliant Republican Congress, those two Amendments will not stand.

When President Hillary Clinton appoints decisively anti-Second Amendment justices to the Supreme Court, you can better believe Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell (assuming they’re still in control of Congress) will comply. When President Hillary Clinton uses the IRS and the FEC, and who knows what other agencies of the one-party controlled executive branch to intimidate people into not exercising free speech, as Obama did (and got away with), the First Amendment will likewise be on its way out.

Without property rights, individual rights are nonexistent. Your property rights include your right to the sovereignty of your bank account, not having to pay for trillions of dollars in government programs not stipulated by the Constitution. We have to make decisions like this one the rule, not the exception. Otherwise, we’ll all wake up one day and realize America is no different from anywhere else, and no longer special.

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