Vindicating Property Rights

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.

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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: