Flawed “Poletown” Decision Overturned
In a striking repudiation of more than two decades of questionable government takings in Michigan, the state Supreme Court on July 30 unanimously overturned its landmark 1981 "Poletown" decision, which had allowed Michigan governments to appropriate private property for primarily private, not public, use. (See links below.) The ruling was issued in the case of "Wayne County v. Edward Hathcock," in which Wayne County sought to invoke eminent domain to seize private land to facilitate a business and technology park that would be owned and operated by private companies.
In its original Poletown decision, "Poletown Neighborhood Council v. Detroit," the court permitted the City of Detroit to condemn 1,300 homes, 140 businesses, six churches and one hospital in a predominantly Polish neighborhood to help General Motors build a factory there. The court ruled that the general economic benefit provided by the GM plant was sufficient grounds for the city’s actions.
In overruling Poletown, Justice Robert P. Young Jr. called the earlier decision a "radical departure from fundamental constitutional principles," since it held for the first time in Michigan’s history "that a private entity’s pursuit of profit was a ‘public use’ for constitutional takings purposes. …" This, he noted, was an "impotent" standard that "would validate practically any exercise of the power of eminent domain on behalf of a private entity," since "every business, every productive unit in society does … contribute in some way to the commonweal [emphasis in original]."
Justice Young concluded, "We must overrule ‘Poletown’ 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." While recognizing that Wayne County had relied on the Poletown decision in crafting the proposed business and technology center, a majority of the justices nevertheless ruled that the county could not lawfully exercise eminent domain in this case.
Mackinac Center scholars view this decision as a decisive victory for the people of Michigan. See the following links for the Center’s past discussions of eminent domain issues and for other articles of interest:
Mackinac Center Viewpoint "Eminent Domain Extremism Runs Into Judicial Brick Wall," July 14, 2004 (http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=6692).
Institute for Justice news release "Landmark Eminent Domain Abuse Decision," July 31, 2004 (http://www.ij.org/media/private_property/michigan/).
Institute for Justice and Mackinac Center for Public Policy Amicus Curiae in "Wayne County v. Edward Hathcock," January 8, 2004 (http://www.ij.org/pdf_folder/private_property/MI_Hathcock_Amicus_Brief.pdf).
Mackinac Center Viewpoint "Government ‘Condemnation’ Power Makes Property Rights Less Secure," February 4, 2002 (http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=4046).
Mackinac Center Viewpoint "Fighting Urban Blight or Trashing Property Rights?," July 2, 2001 (http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=3538).
Mackinac Center Study "Reforming the Law of Takings in Michigan," April 15, 1996 (http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=5231).
The Detroit News, "Michigan should alter property grab rules: Supreme Court's decision to let government condemn land for GM plant set poisonous precedent for similar abuses of power," by Ilya Somin, January 8, 2004 (http://www.detnews.com/2004/editorial/0401/08/a11-30056.htm).
The Detroit News, "Auto plant vs. neighborhood: The Poletown battle," by Jenny Nolan, (http://info.detnews.com/history/story/ index.cfm?id=18&category=business).
Mackinac Center Study "Keeping Michigan on Track: A Blueprint for a Freer, More Prosperous State," May 2002 (see section entitled "Strengthening Property Rights Protection" at http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=4201).
Michigan Supreme Court, "Wayne County v. Edward Hathcock," (http://courtofappeals.mijud.net/documents/opinions/final/ sct/20040730_s124070_176_wayne_co7apr04_op.pdf).