Hawaii Housing Authority et al. v. Midkiff et al.

Supreme Court of the United States, 1984.

467 U.S. 229, 104 S.Ct. 2321, 81 L.Ed.2d 186.

Johnson, pp. 803-807


Facts: The Hawaii legislature passed a law to transfer land from large landowners to their lessees.  The purpose was to end concentrated land ownership in order to make the land market more efficient.  When the HHA tried to take some land from large landowners under this new law, the landowners sued, claiming the law was unconstitutional.  The trial court held the law constitutional because the goals of the law were “within the bounds of the State’s police powers” and that the means of taking land was not “arbitrary, capricious, or selected in bad faith”.  The landowners appealed and the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the law was unconstitutional because it did not serve a legitimate “public use”, but rather was an unlawful redistribution of private property from one person to another.  The HHA appealed to the United States Supreme Court.


Issue: Is the Hawaii Land Reform Act constitutional?  More specifically, are the “takings” authorized by the law consistent with a legitimate “public use or purpose”?


Rule: When the use of eminent domain is “rationally related to a conceivable public purpose”, it will not be found to be unconstitutional.


Analysis: The Court finds that breaking up the land oligopoly in Hawaii is a legitimate public purpose and that the scheme devised by the Hawaii legislature to accomplish this purpose is sufficiently related to the goal.  The Court says that in general, it will not insinuate itself into debates over the wisdom of various kinds of economic regulation.


Conclusion: The Supreme Court reverses the decision of the Court of Appeals, finding the law constitutional.


Notes and Questions


1.     It seems like “public use” suggests stuff that the public could actually use, directly.  For instance, if you plow some houses to build a public park or a public highway or railroad or sewage plant, that’s stuff the public can use.  But public purpose is broader: if you condemn slums and then redevelop the area as new private property for homes or businesses, it may not end up as something the public can use, but it may well serve the public interest.  In a sense, this is a separation-of-powers issue.  The question is how much deference the courts should show to legislatures and where to draw the constitutional line.

2.     The question is whether courts shall review what legislatures do, or whether they shall simply make sure the legislature did something to make sure the takings of property were lawful.  This Court seems to actually double-check whether what the legislature did was okay.

3.     I think part of the point of the limitation is to limit government interference in the land market.  Furthermore, if you take someone’s property against their will, even with just compensation, you will probably be reducing the total utility of society unless that property is worth more to society at large in different hands than it is to the previous private owner.  Making sure there is a “public purpose” to the taking will tend to reduce economically inefficient wealth transfers.

4.     It looks like a city council wouldn’t have any big problems using eminent domain to get land for a shopping mall.  The public purpose would be to encourage economic development of the area.  The question is whether the new use of the land would be more economically efficient than the old use of the land.  It seems like it will take a lot for a court to find that a government has gone too far.

5.     Okay!


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