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Lawmakers aim to re-establish property rights

Several Mississippi members of Congress are united in theiropposition to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that broadlyexpanded local governments’ ability to seize private property byeminent domain.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is very controversial and we’reexploring the options that we have to more carefully define theauthority of the federal government to obtain private property overthe objections of private owners for public purposes,” said U.S.Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

In a 5-4 decision that prompted a scathing dissent by retiringJustice Sandra Day O’Connor, the nation’s highest court essentiallychanged the prerequisite for eminent domain proceedings from”public use” to anything that serves the public purpose. The changeopens the door for any private property to be seized by localgovernments for economic development activity.

Some have expressed concern that the ruling could be abused bylocal governments to transfer private ownership from one person toanother with no legal recourse available to the originallandowner.

“I think a lot of Americans, whatever their political stance,are disturbed by this. It’s unprecedented,” said Lee Youngblood, aspokesman for U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.

Third District U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., agreed andpromised quick action by the House of Representatives to counterthe ruling.

“All private property owners should be concerned with thisdecision and Congress will act soon to return property protectionsto the American people,” Pickering said. “The House will beintroducing and will hopefully pass, after the August recess, abill which restricts the federal government from using that powerand restricts the use of that power for any project that receivesfederal funds.”

Bills to counter the ruling are also being filed in the Senate,senators say.

“I am aware of several bills that have been introduced in theHouse and Senate on this issue. I believe you can assured that it’sgoing to be debated and that probably something will be done toclarify the law to protect private property eminent domainproceedings in the public interest,” Cochran said.

Lott wrote in a July 1 column that he had already “joined withother senators to introduce legislation aimed at protecting privateproperty rights from this court decision.”

Even before Lott’s column, the House had voiced its disapprovalof the ruling.

Pickering voted in favor of House Resolution 340 on June 30,only days after the ruling was announced, to “express the gravedisapproval of the House of Representatives regarding the majorityopinion of the Supreme Court.”

The resolution passed on a 365-33 vote.

Overwhelming support for Senate action in response to the highcourt ruling is also expected.

“I think it’s safe to say there is a lot of support to counterthis,” Youngblood said. “I expect this to be a bipartisan issue.The reaction to this was strong.”

Cochran said he could not say what form a final bill mighttake.

“I’m not sure I have the exact right answer in terms of thelanguage that should be approved by Congress, but we’re working onit,” Cochran said. “I think we do need to make sure that privateproperty rights are protected and respected by the government.”

According to Youngblood, a bill being drafted that Lott supportswould deny federal funding to projects that seized private propertyunder the expanded powers.

“That would dissuade many small governments from using this newpower on behalf of another private entity,” he said. “A lot ofthese types of projects have federal funding tied into them.”

Many state governments are considering a similar approach tosafeguard private property rights, Youngblood said.