Lessons of an Effort to Compensate Victims of an Unjust Use of Eminent Domain a Century after it Happened – Reason.com

0
24
Lessons of an Effort to Compensate Victims of an Unjust Use of Eminent Domain a Century after it Happened – Reason.com

Manhattan Beach, California.

Authorities in the California city of Manhattan Beach recently voted to return property that was wrongly confiscated from a prestigious domain in 1924 by an African-American family:

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to return property to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.

The Bruces bought the first of two ocean-view lots for $ 1,225, a lot that could now be worth millions.

In 1924, the city of Manhattan Beach used a significant domain to force the couple off of their land to turn it into a park. The city confiscated the property in 1929, but remained empty for decades.

Within 60 days of voting Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office will file a report with a plan and schedule for returning the property to the Bruce family.

“This was an injustice inflicted not only on Willa and Charles Bruce, but also on generations of their descendants who would almost certainly have been millionaires if they had been able to keep this property and their successful business,” Janice said Hahn, District 4 director of the Los Angeles District. Hahn’s neighborhood includes the Manhattan Beach property that is to be returned to the family.

“This was an injustice inflicted not only on Willa and Charles Bruce, but also on generations of their descendants who would almost certainly have been millionaires if they had been able to keep this property and their successful business,” Janice said Hahn, District 4 director of the Los Angeles District. Hahn’s neighborhood includes the Manhattan Beach property that is to be returned to the family.

The injustice the county is trying to eradicate is real. The city government confiscated the Bruce family’s precious property for a purpose that turned out to be no good.

Media reports on the case tend to suggest that the country must have been convicted, at least in part, of racial prejudice. That is entirely plausible. There is a long history of significant domain, zone, and various other types of land use restrictions being used to evict African Americans. At the same time, it is possible that in this particular case, race was not the determining factor, as 25 of the 30 lots convicted for this project were owned by whites.

Whether motivated by racism or not, the revenues were still deeply unfair. The demolition of homes and businesses for a park that was never built is unjustifiable.

How much justice can be achieved if the land is handed over to the descendants of the Bruce family nearly a century later is debatable. The original victims of injustice are long dead. Some of their descendants are still alive, and it can be argued that these descendants would be millionaires today if only property had remained in the family.

Maybe that’s true. But if history had taken a different, fairer turn, these particular offspring likely would not have been born at all. Even a slight change in the course of the event is enough to prevent a certain sperm and egg shape from forming at a certain point in time, and thus the birth of a certain person. The Bruce family may well have descendants in this counterfactual world. But it would almost certainly be different people than in our world today.

This problem is not unique to the Manhattan Beach case. It is almost any effort to redress injustices that have occurred many decades or centuries in the past. An example from my own family history illustrates the problem.

As early as 1918, the newly established communist government of the Soviet Union wrongly confiscated my great-grandfather’s small business (and of course many others who like it). Giving the land back to me and his other descendants today is a questionable means. After all, if history had taken a different course then, neither I nor his other living descendants would have ever existed.

These issues should not prevent living victims of historical injustices, or children of them born before the injustice occurred, from receiving compensation. But the further we move away from the injustice in question in a timely manner, the more likely it is that the only people we can give compensation to are those who likely would not have existed at all if the injustice had never been committed.

The obvious lesson here is that it is important not to commit such injustices first. If you are obliged to do so, it is important to make the refund sooner rather than later. Getting to that many decades later is just too late.

While it may be impossible to truly undo the injustice committed in Manhattan Beach in 1924, there is much work to be done today to prevent similar mistakes. Unfortunately, the use of a major property seizure domain for projects that never succeed is all too common.

This happened in the infamous Kelo v City of New London case, which left several homes confiscated on a flawed “economic development” project that was never built, leaving a colony of feral cats the only regular users of the condemned land. Something similar happened in the recent Foxconn debacle in Wisconsin. As recently as last year, the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) upheld the assumption of a pipeline that may never be built.

In my opinion, revenues for projects that are never built violate the constitutional requirements (which are enshrined in both the Fifth Amendment to the Federal Constitution and similar clauses in virtually every state constitution) that a significant domain is only for “public use” can be used. There can be no “public use” in which the supposed purpose of ingestion was never fulfilled, and especially not if this error is foreseeable at the time of ingestion. Even those who believe that “public use” should be defined broadly should agree that the government is required to take over property, at least only if the claimed public use actually occurs.

State and federal courts should therefore take action against income of this kind by requiring the government to provide strong evidence that the condemned land is actually being used for the project that allegedly justifies the use of a significant domain in the first place. Some states have already enforced such restrictions fairly heavily. But many don’t. If judges are unwilling or unable to take this step, lawmakers can implement reforms in the same way.

Fixing this issue does not end all problematic earnings. Major domain abuse is a complex, multi-faceted problem that cannot be addressed by a single reform. But preventing future revenues like the one in Manhattan Beach would be a good start. The best way to deal with unjust income is to prevent it from occurring in the first place.