Cert Petition: After Kelo, When Is Eminent Domain Pretextual?
by Robert Thomas, InverseCondemnation.com
On July 14, 2011, we filed this cert petition (also posted below), which asks the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Hawaii Supreme Court's decision in County of Hawaii v. C&J Coupe Family Ltd. P'ship, 242 P.3d 1136 (Haw. 2010). In that case, the Hawaii court upheld the taking of land on the Big Island, holding that the asserted public use was not a pretext to hide the overwhelming private benefit to the developer of the luxury Hokulia project.
This case presents the opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to firmly establish what the Kelo majority and Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinions strongly suggested, but did not need to squarely address in that case: that "unusual" exercises of eminent domain power will trigger a presumption of invalidity, or at least require heightened scrutiny. These independent triggers include when (1) a taking is accomplished outside of an integrated and comprehensive plan; (2) the factual context reveals suspect motivations such as a contractual restraint on sovereign powers; (3) the taking benefits a particular private party selected beforehand; or (4) private benefits outweigh incidental public benefits.
Governments and property owners will benefit from the establishment of clear standards, because condemning authorities will understand that when they utilize eminent domain in a neutral, transparent, and well-considered process, the result will be entitled to judicial deference, and property owners will be assured that in the absence of these indicators of pretext, the need to surrender their property for the greater good is genuine. While any single indicator is enough to trigger reversal of the presumption of validity, this case has all four.
Here's the Question Presented:
The Hawaii Supreme Court held that a one-to-one transfer of property to a private developer by eminent domain, instituted outside the confines of an integrated development plan, and while the condemnor was threatened by breach of a contract in which it promised to condemn the land for the developer, was not subject to a presumption of invalidity or even heightened scrutiny under the Fifth Amendment's Public Use Clause. The court concluded that even when "a contract that delegates a county’s eminent domain powers raises well founded concerns that a private purpose is afoot" under Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), it is the property owner’s burden to prove by "clear and palpable" evidence the asserted reason for taking property is "manifestly wrong."
Since Kelo, the lower courts have been unable to settle on consistent or clear standards for when the public purpose supporting an exercise of eminent domain is pretextual, or in what situations the "risk of undetected impermissible favoritism" is such that a presumption of invalidity or a heightened standard of review is warranted. Id. at 493 (Kennedy, J., concurring). The question presented is:
What category of takings are subject to heightened judicial scrutiny, and when is the risk of undetected favoritism so acute that an exercise of eminent domain can be presumed invalid?
More to follow.
Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, C&J Coupe Family Ltd Pship v County of Hawaii (filed 7/14/2011)