Just before dawn on July 14, 1981, Detroit police hooked a tow truck to the basement door of the Immaculate Conception Church on Trombly Street and tore it off its hinges. They stormed in and arrested a dozen parishioners who were making a desperate, doomed attempt to save part of their neighborhood from an assault by an unbeatable alliance of big government, big business and big labor.
This was the last stand in the battle over Poletown, a lower-middle-class, racially integrated neighborhood of Detroit that was razed at the behest of General Motors more than two decades ago. To make room for a G.M. assembly plant, the city cleared 465 acres, incidentally destroying some 1,400 homes, about 140 businesses and several churches.
In a shameful capitulation, the Michigan Supreme Court approved Poletown's demolition as a legitimate exercise of the city's eminent domain powers. It accepted the argument that the jobs and tax revenue the G.M. plant was expected to bring rendered it a "public use," as required by the Michigan constitution (as well as other state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution).
Last month the court finally acknowledged that its ruling in Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit was a mistake that opened the door to the potentially unlimited expropriation of private property in the name of the greater good. While considering an attempt by Wayne County to seize land for a 1,300-acre "business and technology park," the court's seven judges unanimously overruled the Poletown decision.
"Poletown's 'economic benefit' rationale would validate practically any exercise of the power of eminent domain on behalf of a private entity," the court noted. "If one's ownership of private property is forever subject to the government's determination that another private party would put one's land to better use, then the ownership of real property is perpetually threatened by the expansion plans of any large discount retailer, 'megastore,' or the like."
Then-Justice James L. Ryan, who dissented from the Poletown decision, said much the same thing in 1981, warning that the ruling "seriously jeopardized the security of all private property ownership." A lot of damage has been done since then, both in Michigan and in other states where courts have copied Poletown's reasoning.