Surprise Bipartisan US House Bill Supports Civil Suits Against Unfair Eminent Domain Actions

On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution will hold a hearing on a bill introduced last week, H.R. 1433, titled The Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2011. Co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of Representatives – yes, including many Republicans – the bill is aimed at stopping municipalities from condemning private property for private land development. Among the witnesses will be Ms. Lori Ann Vendetti, a homeowner in Long Beach, New Jersey, one of a group of homeowners who successfully fought the city’s efforts to take their homes and allow developers to make millions building upscale condos.

The hearing and bill should be of great interest to anybody who promotes and advocates Americans’ right to utilize the civil litigation process and the rights protected by the 7th Amendment to a jury trial for civil suits. Section 4 of the bill creates a private right of action to fight local eminent domain actions, as follows:

SEC. 4. Private right of action.

(a) Cause of Action.–Any (1) owner of private property whose property is subject to eminent domain who suffers injury as a result of a violation of any provision of this Act with respect to that property, or (2) any tenant of property that is subject to eminent domain who suffers injury as a result of a violation of any provision of this Act with respect to that property, may bring an action to enforce any provision of this Act in the appropriate Federal or State court. A State shall not be immune under the 11th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States from any such action in a Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction. In such action, the defendant has the burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that the taking is not for economic development. Any such property owner or tenant may also seek an appropriate relief through a preliminary injunction or a temporary restraining order.

(b) Limitation on Bringing Action.–An action brought by a property owner or tenant under this Act may be brought if the property is used for economic development following the conclusion of any condemnation proceedings condemning the property of such property owner or tenant, but shall not be brought later than seven years following the conclusion of any such proceedings.

© Attorneys’ Fee and Other Costs.–In any action or proceeding under this Act, the court shall allow a prevailing plaintiff a reasonable attorneys’ fee as part of the costs, and include expert fees as part of the attorneys’ fee.

This is precisely one of the scenarios that the Founders designed when drafting the Bill of Rights – the individual fighting in court to protect his property rights against the power of the sovereign. On these pages, I’ve been warning those conservative groups which back “tort reform” that civil suits and trial lawyers are the expression of our unalienable right to a civil jury trial, that the civil litigation process has its roots in centuries of American and British law back to the Magna Carta in 1215, and that there are numerous conservative causes for which trial lawyers file civil suits every day. Last September, I wrote Seven Reasons Why Protecting 7th Amendment Should Be Republican & Tea Party Priority, and Reason No. 3 was Civil Suits Protect Religious Liberty, Gun Rights, and Property Rights, and I specifically mentioned those lawsuits filed against unfair eminent domain actions. But I haven’t seen a lot of acceptance by many mainstream “conservative” groups of this piece of basic American philosophy and history. Instead, much of the energy this year in Congress is being directed at “tort reforming” our unalienable rights away when any health care-related lawsuits, through attempting to enact H.R. 5, which I’ve discussed often on this site.

It’s fascinating that many of the Republican co-sponsors of H.R. 1433 are also co-sponsors of H.R. 5. The two bills couldn’t be more contradictory in intent, spirit, and basis in American Constitutional law. It should make the hearing interesting to watch, which you can do from the committee’s website, linked above.