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July 1, 2008

A Column of Personal Opinion
By State Senator Sheila Harsdorf

U.S. Supreme Court Rulings
Affect Us All


Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling enabled government to use powers of eminent domain to take private property if it was justified as a means of redevelopment with its decision in Kelo v. City of New London. It was alarming that the federal courts embraced such takings for the direct benefit of private entities in the name of economic development and an expanded tax base. This was seen by many as an abuse of eminent domain. One dissenting Justice labeled the decision a “license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”

Development pressures are not new to western Wisconsin. Farmland and rural areas abut some of the fastest growing communities in our state. Temptations to use new powers for redevelopment can be significant, especially since the private citizen would be at the mercy of developments that would bring in more revenue for government.

This posed new questions to lawmakers: Should economic development and expanding the tax base be reason enough for the takings of private property? Should this be done for the exclusive benefit of private companies or the wealthy? Since any property can be upgraded, doesn’t that in fact make all property owners vulnerable?

Wisconsin lawmakers rejected such uses of eminent domain. I was pleased to be part of a bipartisan coalition that helped enact 2005 Wisconsin Act 233, which prohibits condemnation of a property that is not blighted if the intent is to lease such property to a private entity.

All together, 35 states moved to reform eminent domain laws since the Kelo decision. It was an important move, especially as we see other communities in other states moving swiftly to condemn private property for redevelopment.

Just recently, we saw a local government ban on handguns barely overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The tentative balance between an activist court and strict constructionist court is just that – tentative. One vote and a different political makeup could radically shift our fundamental rights, such as gun ownership and private property.

What do you think of these rulings? Call me at 1-800-862-1092 or send me an email to