Berman v. Parker
|Berman v. Parker|
Supreme Court of the United States
|Argued October 19, 1954
Decided November 22, 1954
|Full case name||Berman et al., Executors, v. Parker et al.|
|Citations||348 U.S. 26 (more)
75 S. Ct. 98; 99 L. Ed. 27; 1954 U.S. LEXIS 1463
|Prior history||Kohl et al. v. United States|
|Subsequent history||Kelo v. City of New London|
|The court ruled that private property could be taken for a public purpose with just compensation.|
|Majority||Douglas, joined by unanimous|
|District of Columbia Redevelopment Act of 1945|
Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26 (1954) is a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that interpreted the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation" in the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The court voted 8-0, holding private property could be taken for a public purpose with just compensation. This case laid the foundation for the Court's later important public use cases, Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229 (1984) and Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005). Critics of recent occurrences of eminent domain uses trace what they view as property rights violations to this case.
Public use 
Berman was reexamined in the 2005 Supreme Court decision Kelo v. City of New London, in which the court extended the Berman ruling to allow takings of unblighted private property, solely for the economic benefit of the condemnor-city. In 1984, the Court had already held in Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229 (1984) that redistribution of land from some private parties to other private parties could pass constitutional muster as a means of rectifying what the state legislature found to be an oligopoly in fee simple land titles.
The United States Congress passed the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act of 1945 to address the vast blighted area found in the District of Columbia. The Act created a commission of five members called the District of Columbia Redevelopment Land Agency and granted it the power to redevelop blighted areas and eliminate any "blighting factors or causes of blight." The act granted the Agency the power of eminent domain, if necessary, to transfer private property from the original owner to a private entity to serve the public purpose of redevelopment. The Act was not only concerned with clearing slums but also with modernizing the urban environment.
The first project under the Act was Project Area B in Southwest Washington, D.C. In 1950, a comprehensive plan for the area was published after surveys indicated that in that area, "64.3% of the dwellings were beyond repair, 18.4% needed major repairs, only 17.3% were satisfactory; 57.8% of the dwellings had outside toilets, 60.3% had no baths, 29.6% lacked electricity, 82.2% had no wash basins or laundry tubs, 83.8% lacked central heating." The plan made provisions for the types of dwelling units and provided that "at least one-third of them [were] to be low-rent housing with a maximum rental of $17 per room per month." The plan was approved by the Commissioners and the Agency began redevelopment of the area. It was during the beginning stages of this redevelopment that the plaintiffs brought suit to challenge the constitutionality of the taking of their department store, located at 712 Fourth Street, S.W. in Area B.
The plaintiffs in the case owned a department store that was not itself blighted but that was scheduled to be taken by eminent domain in order to clear the larger blighted area where it was located. Plaintiffs argued that this property was not slum housing and that it could not be taken for a project under the management of a private agency to be redeveloped for private use simply to make the community more attractive overall. The owners further argued that taking the land under eminent domain and giving it to redevelopers amounted to "a taking from one businessman for the benefit of another businessman" and did not constitute a public use, thus violating the 5th Amendment to the Constitution.
District Court Decision 
Berman's challenge to the constitutionality of the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act was heard by a special three-panel district court. The key issue addressed was the ability and scope of the government to take and transfer private property to private developers as part of a project to clear blight from an entire area. E. Barrett Prettyman, the D.C. Circuit judge who wrote the opinion, found no problem with the government using eminent domain to clear blighted structures because it could be seen as the abatement of a public nuisance. However, Judge Prettyman saw the land on which the blighted structures were located as a different matter and as having nothing inherently to do with blight. Such land, he felt, could only be taken by eminent domain if it actually helped to combat the blight that existed on the property.
Judge Prettyman ultimately read the Redevelopment Act very narrowly and found that non-blighted property could be taken so long as the taking could be tied to prevention of blight. He firmly stated, however, that eminent domain could not be used by the government to take private property for the purpose of improving economic or aesthetic conditions of neighborhoods. Therefore, he granted the government's motion to dismiss but also raised the seriousness of using eminent domain to serve broad redevelopment projects.
Supreme Court Decision 
The Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of the Planning Commission by arguing that the problem of large-scale blight needed to be addressed with a large-scale integrated redevelopment plan. Justice Douglas wrote in his opinion, "If owner after owner were permitted to resist these redevelopment programs on the ground that his particular property was not being used against the public interest, integrated plans for redevelopment would suffer greatly." As the Planning Commission had made detailed plans and taken extensive surveys of the area in question, the Supreme Court argued for judicial restraint. Douglas wrote, "In the present case, the Congress and its authorized agencies have made determinations that take into account a wide variety of values. It is not for us to reappraise them." The Court stated that there is nothing in the 5th Amendment that prohibits those who govern the District of Columbia from deciding that the Capital should be "beautiful as well as sanitary." As the object of cleaning up the area was said to be within Congress's authority, it then followed, according to the Court, that the right to use eminent domain to accomplish the object clearly exists.
Douglas addressed the issue presented by the landowners of "a taking from one businessman for the benefit of another businessman" by saying that a legitimate public purpose had been established by the Congress in creating the entire redevelopment plan, i.e., the purpose of the taking was to eliminate slums on an area-wide basis. The Supreme Court found that though specific parcels of land may have been unblighted, their taking was necessary for the functioning of the redevelopment plan as a whole. Justice Douglas expanded the definition of "public use" to include "public purpose" based on physical, aesthetic, and monetary benefits and stated that the purpose of the redevelopment plan in this case was to address the broader blight issues in the area in order to prevent the neighborhood from reverting to blighted conditions in the future. The Court ultimately declined to address the specifics of the plan, saying that "[o]nce the question of the public purpose has been decided, the amount and character of the land to be taken for a particular tract to complete the integrated plan rests in the discretion of the legislative branch."
The judgment of the District Court was affirmed but the Supreme Court opinion made it clear that Judge Prettyman's narrow reading of the Act was improper. Commentators have since observed that Berman essentially wrote "public use" out of the Constitution.
See also 
- List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 348
- Barros, D. Benjamin. 2007. Nothing "Errant" About It: The Berman and Midkiff Conference Notes and How the Supreme Court Got to Kelo With Its Eyes Wide Open. In Private Property, Community Development, & Eminent Domain, ed. Robin Paul Malloy (forthcoming). This paper can be downloaded from The Social Science Research Network at http://ssrn.com/abstract=902926.
- Cohen, Charles E. 2006. Eminent Domain After Kelo v. City of New London: An Argument for Banning Economic Development Takings. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 29:491-568.
- Pritchett, Wendell E. 2003. The "Public Menace" of Blight: Urban Renewal and the Private Uses of Eminent Domain. Yale Law & Policy Review 21, 1-52.
- Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26 (1954), in the Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court of the United States.
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