Author: Timothy Sandefur
Voters in Arnold, Missouri, have thrown out of office the mayor and city council members who were behind the plan to seize PLF client Homer Tourkakis’ business and give the land to a private developer.
You’ll remember that, almost two years ago, Dr. Tourkakis’ dentist office, which overlooked a busy highway in the St. Louis suburb, lost his fight to defend his private property. I represented him in the Missouri Supreme Court, where we argued that Missouri law did not allow smaller towns—called “third class” cities in Missouri—to take private property for these kinds of redevelopment projects. The Missouri Supreme Court, however, ruled against him. As I explain in this article, recently published by our friends at the Show Me Institute, that decision expanded the power of eminent domain to allow any city, no matter how small, to seize private homes and businesses and give the land to developers that politicians want to favor.
City officials weren’t satisfied to win their effort to steal the property. They even issued an official statement attacking Homer Tourkakis for having the temerity to defend his rights in court. You can read about that shameful episode here.
Sadly, the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision was the end of the line for Dr. Tourkakis’ property. But he’s a resilient man—one of the many really amazing people I’ve been lucky enough to get to know in this job—and he’s opened a new dentist office, that he calls Eminent Dental.
Meanwhile, voters have fought back. Knowing that their property could very well be next, they took to the ballot box, and evicted the mayor and city council members who promoted the eminent domain plan. This is similar to the case of Wright Gore, who managed to protect his family business from bureaucrats in Freeport, Texas, who had dreams of building a shopping center on his land. Voters in that city also tossed out the pro-condemnation bureaucrats. And voters in Riviera Beach, Florida, also tossed out city officials who tried to seize private property for development in direct violation of state law. (PLF represented those property owners, also.)
While it’s gratifying to see voters acting to defend themselves in this way, there’s a down side to these things, also. The reason for having constitutional protections for private property rights is that by protecting our property in the Constitution means we don’t have to spend our time and money running political campaigns to throw out abusive politicians. If you have to run a political campaign to convince bureaucrats to respect your private property, then what you have isn’t really a property right at all—it’s a permission, or a privilege, that only exists as long as politicians decide not to take it away. That’s not what the Constitution is supposed to be about.
As the U.S. Supreme Court once said,
The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.
Homer Tourkakis can rest vindicated today, as can Wright Gore and the residents of Riviera Beach. But real protection for private property rights requires that our courts enforce our constitution’s guarantees for private property rights—and that means stopping these kinds of eminent domain abuse.