Miss. eminent domain ballot initiative in court

JACKSON — A Hinds County judge is scheduled to hear high-stakes arguments Monday over a proposed constitutional amendment to prevent governments from taking property for anything but a public project.

Circuit Judge Winston Kidd must decide whether the amendment will be put before voters on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

Leland Speed, who is head of the Mississippi Development Authority, is leading the opposition to placing the issue in voters’ hands. Speed says he is acting as a private citizen not as a public official.

“Eminent domain still would be used to acquire land for roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure needs,” Speed said in a recent statement. “Only economic development would be affected by the initiative and Mississippi would be prevented from competing with other states to attract the jobs we so desperately need.”

Eminent domain is the process government uses to take private land for projects ranging from road construction to industrial development. The proposed constitutional amendment would prohibit state and local government from taking private land to give to another person or business.

The politically powerful Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation sponsored the initiative and gathered signatures to place the issue on the ballot. Supporters have said the amendment will protect property rights.

In a “friend of the court” brief filed this past week, the National Federation of Independent Business said the proposed amendment is constitutional because it would not change the definition of public use, and it would not grant new rights to property owners.

“It’s one thing for government to take private property for long-standing and well-agreed public uses, but it’s just plain wrong for the government to take someone’s home, business or farm so someone else can develop the land or secure a better location,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center.

Speed said the state has used eminent domain sparingly and the legal process “respects private property rights and ensures individuals are heard.”

While eminent domain for economic development is possible under current law, the practice remains politically unpopular.

Four candidates for Mississippi governor are supporting the initiative. Republicans Phil Bryant and Dave Dennis and Democrats Johnny DuPree and Bill Luckett spoke in favor of limiting eminent domain during a June forum at the Mississippi Press Association convention in Biloxi.

The candidates’ positions on limiting governments’ ability to take land puts them at odds with two-term Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who couldn’t seek re-election this year. Barbour has vetoed eminent domain restrictions because he believes they could hurt Mississippi’s ability to attract big projects such as auto manufacturing plants.

Nearly 120,000 people signed petitions to put the eminent domain restrictions on the ballot.

Eminent domain has been an issue in dozens of states since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Connecticut case in 2005 that land could be taken for private development.

The eminent domain amendment is one of three on the Mississippi ballot this fall. The others deal with voter identification and the definition of “personhood.”

Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press