Reversing more than two decades of land-use law, the Michigan Supreme Court late Friday overturned its own landmark 1981 Poletown decision and sharply restricted governments such as Detroit and Wayne County from seizing private land to give to other private users.
The unanimous decision is a decisive victory for property owners who object to the government seizing their land, only to give it to another private owner to build stadiums, theaters, factories, housing subdivisions and other economic development projects the government deems worthwhile.
In the original Poletown ruling, the court allowed the City of Detroit to seize private homes and businesses on the east side so General Motors Corp. could build an auto factory. The bitterly contested seizures and the court's ruling in favor of the city had national implications and led to similar rulings elsewhere.
Thousands of homes and dozens of churches and private businesses were bulldozed in Detroit's former Poletown neighborhood to make way for the GM plant.
In Friday's decision, known as Wayne County v. Hathcock after one of the landowners in the case, the court ruled that the sweeping powers to seize private land granted in the 1981 Poletown case violated the state's 1963 constitution.
"The county is without constitutional authority to condemn the properties," the court's opinion read. All seven justices voted to overturn Poletown, although three dissented over some technical aspects that do not affect the main ruling.
Justice Robert Young, who wrote the lead opinion, called the 1981 case allowing Detroit's Poletown neighborhood to be cleared for a GM plant a "radical departure from fundamental constitutional principles."
"We overrule Poletown," Young wrote, "in order to vindicate our constitution, protect the people's property rights and preserve the legitimacy of the judicial branch as the expositor, not creator, of fundamental law."
I have never been a fan of using eminent domain to take land away from one person just to give it to someone else, and I wrote about such uses of eminent domain last year.
As Kevin Connors (SSDB) notes, this decision only applies to the state of Michigan. Since the now-overturned decision led to similar rulings elsewhere, I'm hoping that other jurisdictions will (eventually) reconsider their eminent domain laws as well.
..and of course, a hat tip to the Michigan State Supreme Court!