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November 21, 2006

Eminent domain fans should stop skewering the facts

Errol Louis might be a "Madder Overkiller" than Atlantic Yards Reporter Norman Oder. Armed with two regular columns and his own set of facts, he is leading a one-columnist crusade for Atlantic Yards.

Since Louis is calling on eminent domain foes (who might they be? ;) to "stop skewing facts," he won't mind us putting his latest NY Daily News column, "Eminent domain foes should stop skewing facts," through the insta-fact checker.

Louis: "A small group of 10 homeowners and one business has filed a federal lawsuit."

Uh, it's really three homeowners, six tenants and one business.

Louis then cites statistics from the Institute for Justice and claims they are not accurate:

A conservative Washington-based legal group, the Institute for Justice - which brought, and lost, the Kelo case - says it has documented 10,282 wrongful uses of eminent domain between 1998 and 2002. This year, the institute claimed that after the Kelo decision, local governments "threatened eminent domain or condemned at least 5,783 homes, businesses, churches and other properties."

Those would be troubling statistics - if they were accurate.

Actually, a group of working-class homeowners in New London, including Suzette Kelo, "brought" the case. The Institute for Justice, which Louis strives to paint as some big K Street lobbying group, provided free legal counsel to the homeowners, who certainly wouldn't have been able to afford a Supreme Court challenge.

Next, Louis provides additional statistics to make another point, but does not dispute the veracity of the Institute's statistics:

In reality, according to Profs. Robert Dreher and Johan Echeverria of Georgetown Law School, the Institute for Justice's alarming numbers are little more than a quick-and-dirty count of media reports in which officials said eminent domain might be used. About 90% of those 5,783 cases were such speculative musings, and the group made no attempt to count when a study or public statement led to no further action.

The institute's statistics also are wildly inflated, counting individual properties in one project as separate uses of eminent domain. The alleged 10,000 cases of eminent domain actually involved only 222 projects, according to the Georgetown profs.

Look, the Institute for Justice isn't saying that there were 10,000 projects that used eminent domain, just around 10,000 property owners who were affected by the practice of using eminent domain to acquire private property. This practice includes coercing property owners to sell before the condemnations are handed down. Also, the Institute's number might be incomplete, since there isn't a central directory for every instance in which the government mentions the possibility of using eminent domain.

Louis's attack on the Institute for Justice's Castle Coalition campaign as an organization that "masquerades as a grass-roots group battling eminent domain but actually is one more arm of the group" is beyond ironic, considering that Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development was formed in Forest City Ratner's boardroom.

Clearly, when an organization is getting as much traction as the Institute for Justice, it is important to consider the group's philosophy. Louis claims that the "overall mission" of the group is to protect "the conservative big-business interests who fund the institute." It would be more accurate to say that the Institute for Justice is a Libertarian organization that champions causes which have positive and negative effects on businesses, big and small. Big developers like Forest City Ratner and mega-retailers like Wal-Mart, Costco and Target, have been the primary beneficiaries of eminent domain condemnations for private purposes. That's why Forest City Residential West pumped at least $250,000 into the recent California election to defeat Proposition 90, a measure that would have restricted the use of eminent domain.

The issue of eminent domain is complicated; though the Institute lost the Kelo case, they won popular support in the backlash to the widely unpopular Kelo decision. The Institute has recently won two important state court decisions in Ohio and Michigan.

Many individuals and groups are affected by its use, but it's safe to say that eminent domain is never used to clear blight in wealthy neighborhoods, nor to take property from the well-to-do for the greater benefit of the poor. That's why the issue of eminent domain abuse has touched such a nerve with the public, and bears closer examination for the benefit of our common values and beliefs.

Posted by lumi at November 21, 2006 10:14 AM