To history's pile of outrageous and incomprehensible court decisions Missouri's Supreme Court just added yet another whopper. Last Tuesday the court handed down a decision so off-base that it leaves nearly everyone — right, left and in between — wondering whether they've just stepped into an alternative universe.
Unfortunately, this universe is all too real, all too familiar. The town of Arnold, Missouri set its sights on an area it wants to redevelop, declared it "blighted," and is taking the vast tract of land by force.
From residents who want to keep it. To live and work there. Residents like Homer Tourkakis.
Tourkakis, a dentist, stood up to fight for his business and his rights. The Pacific Legal Foundation, the Institute for Justice and citizen leader Ron Calzone of Missouri Citizens for Property Rights stood up behind him.
He thought he had a good case. After all, this land grab is not for a public use, but merely to flip the land over to private developers
He knew that the Fifth Amendment couldn't help him, of course — he and we lost its protections regarding eminent domain with Kelo. In that bit of infamy, the High Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Fifth Amendment limitation, that government could only confiscate private property for "public use," was essentially meaningless. "Public use" is whatever local governments decide it is.
But he did have the Missouri Constitution. State constitutions are often better than the federal, as I argued last week. Article 1. Section 2 says government's "chief purpose" is to secure the individual's right to "the pursuit of happiness and the enjoyment of the gains of their own industry." Stealing one's land for "economic development" doesn't jive with that section. And Article 1. Section 28 has even stronger language — "private property shall not be taken for private use with or without compensation, unless by consent of the owner" — than does our federal Constitution's Fifth Amendment.
But Mr. Tourkakis was saddled with something he didn't count on: his state's highest court. In this case, Arnold v. Tourkakis, the judges one-upped the infamous Kelo decision, ignored the state constitution, and overruled the lower court's good sense.
All to give Arnold the power to abuse eminent domain. This may not sound like much, but Arnold is not a chartered city, and the state's constitution granted eminent domain powers only to chartered cities, leaving it up to the legislature to grant such powers to other entities, like Arnold. The legislature never did that.
Missouri's top judges, however, ruled that by passing legislation on the general subject of eminent domain the legislature mysteriously meant to grant non-chartered cities the power to do anything that chartered cities can.
The court ruled that governments have an "unlimited and practically absolute sovereign power of eminent domain" to take our property at their whim.
Freedom forbid. Nowhere in our contract with government does it say we are tax slaves duty-bound to produce more profit (and thus more for the tax man than the fellows next to us) or risk being bullied off our private plots of earth for new tenants. It is a policy despised all across the country, by rich and poor, conservative and liberal.
But that policy not only brings in money to government, but to politicians and their cronies. So of course the policy thrives.
What is one to do?
Well, help Ron Calzone. Calzone is a businessman and the volunteer head of Missouri Citizens for Property Rights, a group petitioning to place two voter initiatives on the ballot this November. Because of the strict single subject rule on citizen initiatives, Calzone believes it takes two measures to get the job done.
The first petition would put eminent domain back to the way it was intended before government got creative, barring forced transfers of property from one person to another. The second measure, by affording added protections to property owners, prevents governments from abusing the blight designation.
It is a shame that these initiatives are necessary, but thank goodness the people of the Show Me state have the citizen initiative process. The legislature and the courts have failed to represent the people and, by any reasonable interpretation, to follow the law.
But the voters of Missouri can trump their would-be rulers with the measures being initiated by Calzone and Missouri Citizens for Property Rights. Homer Tourkakis is working with the group, and responded to the decision with vision and class:
I have concluded that the only way to protect our property rights is to amend the constitution to clearly prohibit the use of eminent domain for private profit. I am proud to serve on the board of Missouri Citizens for Property Rights, a grassroots effort to put two constitutional amendments on this November's ballot. Missouri's initiative process allows us to bypass the judges and politicians and go straight to the voters. These amendments may be too late to save my own property, but I want to ensure that no other Missourians will have to go through the same heart-wrenching ordeal my wife and I have experienced.
The deadline to gather over 200,000 signatures on these two initiatives is May 4th. Good people are out gathering signatures from voters all across Missouri, and good people from anywhere in America can contribute and help.
The judges ought not have the last word.