New York's highest court rules against property owners


Author: Timothy Sandefur

The New York Court of Appeals has issued its decision in the Columbia University eminent domain case, reversing the lower court's decision which had favored the property owners. The state's highest court (unsurprisingly) ruled that taking property to benefit a private university is a "civic purpose." I have not yet read the decision, but will blog more about it when I have.

Update: The court’s rejection of the property owners’ vagueness argument seems particularly wrongheaded.

The property owners argued that the term “blight” is too vague for a person to know what it means. They’re right, and New York is certainly not alone in this. In most states, the term “blight” means basically whatever a local government says it means. But here’s the New York Court of Appeals’ entire discussion of this problem (citations and quotation marks omitted):

It has long been settled that civil as well as penal statutes can be tested for vagueness under the due process clause.. Due process requires that a statute be sufficiently definite so that individuals of ordinary intelligence are not forced to guess at the meaning of statutory terms. In the context of eminent domain cases, we have held that, to guard against discriminatory application of the law, it is not necessary that the degree of deterioration or precise percentage of obsolescence or mathematical measurement of other factors be arrived at with precision. Indeed, in Yonkers Community Dev. Agency, we recognized that many factors and interrelationships of factors may be significant for a blight finding and:

may include such diverse matters as irregularity of the plots, inadequacy of the streets, diversity of land ownership making assemblage of property difficult, incompatibility of the existing mixture of residential and industrial property, overcrowding, the incidence of crime, the lack of sanitation, the drain an area makes on municipal services, fire hazards, traffic congestion, and pollution.

Not only has this Court, but the Supreme Court has consistently held that blight is an elastic concept that does not call for an inflexible, one-size-fits-all definition. Rather, blight or "substandard or insanitary areas," as we held in Matter of Goldstein and Yonkers Community Dev. Agency, must be viewed on a case-by-case basis. Accordingly, because the UDC Act provides adequate meaning to the term "substandard or insanitary area," we reject petitioners' argument that the statute is unconstitutionally vague on its face.

This is simply not an answer. Indeed, it’s a collection of fallacies, starting with a straw man. Nobody contends that the word blight should be subject to an “inflexible” definition. But it ought to be subject to some degree of precision. Instead, the court says that it’s to be decided “on a case-by-case basis”—and by what criteria? We aren’t told! The decision recites “many factors” and “interrelationships of factors,” but gives no clear criteria for determining whether blight exists or not. The justices merely know blight when they see it…and then say that that’s clear enough! This is hand-waving, not legal analysis.