Putting eminent domain on trial

This tale of a small hamburger stand should make us all question who has the power.

Jeff Stanley is no stranger to property battles. He created a hamburger stand out of a tiny shoeshine shop in Madison, Wis., more than a quarter century ago. Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry became a great place to get hamburgers and homemade desserts.

But the good times didn’t last. The bank that owned the land where the Dowry was located wanted to put in a retail building. Stanley had a few years left on his lease and refused any buy-out offers. The bank started digging around his hamburger stand.

Soon, the only way to get to the Dowry was a bridge over the construction. Even the construction workers would take their lunch breaks at the Dowry. Eventually, Stanley’s stubbornness won out and the bank helped him relocate.

Private business can sometimes show a little charity. During the years, Dowry’s became a staple of the Madison restaurant scene. Stanley became known as the “Hamburger King,” and USA Today declared Dotty dumpling’s Dowry as one of the 20 best hamburger establishments in the United States.

Unfortunately for Stanley, when the government sees something it wants, it can be intransigent.

The local government wanted a new municipal building where the Dowry was located, so it condemned the building. After demonstrations and court battles, Stanley lost his location. Unrelenting, he later opened up his restaurant in another location, and he again reigns supreme on the Madison burger scene.

Unfortunately, that power was increased in the Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London. In this decision, the Connecticut city of New London’s plan to give private property to private developers in the hopes of increasing tax revenue was founded to be included in the eminent domain clause of the Constitution.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor poignantly stated her dissent:

“The fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”

The cookie jar is open, and many are throwing in their hands. Luckily, there is still opportunity to stop this increase in power. In the House of Representatives, Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, and Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D., are working on passing the Strengthening the Ownership of Private Property Act.

This bill would discourage local governments from using their new eminent domain toy by taking away federal funds on all economic development projects, not just those dealing with the eminent domain abuse. This bill deserves to be passed.

If the bill doesn’t pass, there is still hope. State legislatures have the power to enact protections against this sort of abuse of power. In a way, the Kelo decision wasn’t a defeat for the Republic because it forces the legislative branches to curtail obvious abuses of power.

We can learn from Jeff Stanley that the fight isn’t over until you stop fighting. Too bad the Supreme Court felt it necessary to open the floodgates.

Marty Andrade welcomes comments at [email protected]