Liberties Groups Ask Court to Overturn Poletown Decision

January 12, 2004

DETROIT – The California-based Pacific Legal Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan joined forces today by filing a friend of the court brief to ask the Michigan Supreme Court to overrule a 20-year-old decision that allows powerful corporations to seize private property for their own private interests.

In an unusual alliance, the two organizations, both nationally recognized for their defense of individual liberties, jointly filed in Wayne County v. Hathcock, urging the court to overturn the landmark case, Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit, that allowed Detroit to condemn a low-income neighborhood known as Poletown, and sell the land at a discount to auto giant General Motors in 1981.

"The consequences of the Poletown decision for property owners across America have been disastrous, especially in low-income neighborhoods," said PLF attorney Timothy Sandefur. "It has created an inequitable policy of corporate welfare allowing wealthy and powerful interests to take other people’s land for their own profit usually at the expense of the poor and underrepresented."

"The government should not be in the business of taking private property to sell to private interests," said ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss. "The Poletown decision has been abused and private land has been given away to the detriment of the poor."

Wayne County is currently seeking to condemn 1,300 acres of land to construct a business park adjacent to Detroit Metro Airport, including a conference center and hotel. The county contends that the business park would increase tax revenue and generate employment, a "public benefit" that satisfies the Michigan Constitution’s public use limitation under Poletown.

As was true in the case involving Poletown, this case has captured national attention since the Michigan Supreme Court invited comment on their previous decision. In Poletown, the court agreed with Detroit that the public benefit of taking the land outweighed the arguments of the people living in the community.

Detroit condemned the neighborhood known as Poletown and sold the land to General Motors (GM) to build an auto plant. Homeowners sued, arguing that the Michigan Constitution declares government may only take property for "a public use," such as a post office or a road, and that GM would be using the property for a private use instead. The city argued that the GM plant would create jobs, and that this public benefit was good enough under the state Constitution.

According to the brief, over the last twenty years, many courts across the nation have followed the Poletown decision, often finding that anything the legislature considers beneficial is a "public use." The organizations argue that the use of eminent domain impacts the poor and minorities more harshly because they have less political influence and fewer resources to fight the government.

"The Pacific Legal Foundation hopes that the court will use this case as an opportunity to give Michiganders more security for their private property rights," added Sandefur.

The brief can be found online at: www.aclumich.org/pdf/briefs/poletownamicusbrief.pdf