Judge: Land-taking restriction can go on ballot

Published 12:39 am Friday, July 29, 2011

JACKSON  (AP) — A judge ruled Friday that an initiative to restrict eminent domain can go on the Mississippi ballot this November, but Republican Gov. Haley Barbour says he expects the ruling to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd ruled that the proposal does not conflict with the state constitution’s bill of rights.

Barbour, who opposes eminent domain restrictions, said in a statement: “It is impossible for me to see how the court could rule that this initiative would not modify the bill of rights.”

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Barbour’s appointee as head of the Mississippi Development Authority, Leland Speed, was acting as a private citizen when he filed a lawsuit seeking to block the proposed amendment to the state constitution. Speed says it would hurt job creation.

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 Nov. 8 general election ballot. Supporters have said the amendment will protect property rights.

Sam Scott, attorney for the Farm Bureau, said this week that 43 states have adopted similar limitations on eminent domain “and they haven’t gone out of business.”

Speed has argued that Mississippi uses 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. Nearly 120,000 people signed petitions to put the eminent domain restrictions on the Mississippi 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.

Barbour in 2009 vetoed a bill that would’ve restricted eminent domain. He argued that the restrictions would hurt Mississippi in its pursuit of big projects such as automobile manufacturing plants. The Democratic-controlled House voted to override the veto, but the Republican-led Senate upheld the governor’s position.

The eminent domain amendment is one of three on the Mississippi ballot for the Nov. 8 general election. The others deal with voter identification and the definition of “personhood.”

A challenge to the “personhood” amendment, which defines life as beginning at conception, is pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court. Attorneys in that case also argued that the initiative process can’t be used to alter the state constitution’s bill of rights.