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Alabama Legislation Limits Eminent Domain


This past week Alabama enacted legislation to limit the right of local governments to seize private property. A similar bill was signed into law last month in Delaware. Both states were reacting to the Supreme Court's decision in June that gave cities broad power to take private property for commercial development. The Alabama proposal limiting eminent domain passed overwhelmingly. Governor Bob Riley was a vocal supporter of the measure, and he joins me on the line.

Welcome to the program.

Governor BOB RILEY (Republican, Alabama): Thanks, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Can you tell me what does this law do?

Gov. RILEY: Well, basically what it does, I think, is take us back to the way we were before the decision by the Supreme Court, which I feel like and I feel like most Alabamans feel like, was a terrible ruling. And I think it's going to go down in history as probably one of the worst that this court has made.

LUDDEN: I mean, what is your fear out of this ruling if a state didn't pass legislation like you have? How would you see this ruling playing out then? What's your fear?

Gov. RILEY: Well, the biggest fear, I think, that most private property owners would have is that for purely an economic base to raise tax revenue, that a person could have his home under eminent domain taken away from him to build a Wal-Mart because it increases the tax base. In the ruling, I think it was Justice O'Connor that said, `You could take a Motel 6 and replace it with a Ritz-Carlton because it increases the tax base.' And I think that is just absolutely wrong, and I think most people do.

I think the Founding Fathers' original intent was that there are times when you have to use eminent domain for a road, for something that benefits the entire citizenry. But when you get to the point that only to increase a tax base gives you a legal right to go out and condemn property, I think that goes against the very principles. There's a difference between a public use, which the Constitution addresses, and just the overall general welfare of a town or a county or a state. So what we're wanting to do in Alabama is go back to the original intent of our Founding Fathers.

LUDDEN: What about some who might say that they fear some important and needed economic development projects now won't be able to go forward?

Gov. RILEY: Well, Alabama over the last few years has probably had as much economic development--and we are actually leading the South today in our economic development, and I cannot think of a time that we've had to use that in any of these major projects that have come into Alabama. But even if it did mean that every state had to compete, as long as they compete on a level playing field, then I don't think any state's going to be at a disadvantage.

LUDDEN: Now your legislation there passed overwhelmingly, I understand.

Gov. RILEY: Without a dissenting vote.

LUDDEN: Is this then a non-partisan issue?

Gov. RILEY: Oh, yeah. I mean, this is--I'm a Republican governor. We have a Democrat-controlled House and Senate. But, again, this passed without a dissenting vote. But I think you're going to see it all across America. I think that the American people are going to stand up and say, `Just because my house doesn't generate the type of tax revenue that a Wal-Mart would or that a shopping center would or a commercial development would does not give you the right to come in and condemn that property.'

LUDDEN: Now some critics have argued that your new law doesn't go far enough; that actually a big loophole has been created. And as I understand it, the law you signed there in Alabama says that the state can still condemn property in cases of blight. Who defines blight?

Gov. RILEY: Well, that is one of the things that we had to struggle with, and it's something that we'll continue to work on. I think there's going to be a move in the state of Alabama to bring this back up again. We'll probably look at, in the next regular session--of making a constitutional amendment, and that's going to give us an opportunity to go back and look at the blight issue. There are a lot of people out there who says this is a loophole.

And, on the other hand, there are blighted areas in a community or in a state that poses a health hazard, that might pose a public safety hazard. You have to be able to address that. But it is--it's difficult to define. This gives the people of Alabama the protection, I think, that they need today. And then it gives us an opportunity to come back, further redefine terms like `blight' and, also, look at making it a constitutional amendment so the next legislative body can't come in without a vote of the people and overturn what we just did.

LUDDEN: Well, Governor Bob Riley of Alabama, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Gov. RILEY: Oh, glad to. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.