Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit

Supreme Court of Michigan, 1981.

410 Mich. 616, 304 N.W.2d 455.

Johnson, pp. 807-814


Facts: During a period of high unemployment, the city of Detroit plans to take a large tract of land belonging to many different private owners and sell it to GM to build a new plant.  Landowners in the neighborhood sued to stop the project and claimed, among other things, that the taking of their land was unconstitutional under the Michigan Constitution.  The plaintiffs lost at trial and moved for immediate consideration by the Supreme Court of Michigan, which was granted.


Issue: Was eminent domain used to take private property for private use contrary to the Michigan Constitution?


Rule: The power of eminent domain may not be invoked unless it is used for a “public use or purpose”.


Analysis: The court says that because it is clear a private entity will benefit from this arrangement, a higher level of scrutiny is required to make sure that there is a “clear and significant” public benefit.  The court believes that such a benefit has been demonstrated.


In a strong dissent, Justice Ryan claims that this is a case of bad means being justified by (maybe) good ends.  Ryan basically says that GM made a power move to extract what they wanted from the city by threat of moving their plant to another state.  Ryan sees this situation as a classic case of appropriating private property for the private gain of another party.


Ryan says that in prior cases, the standard of “public purpose” has been used for taxation while “public use” has been used for eminent domain.  Ryan says the different standards are justified because eminent domain is far more intrusive than taxation and thus the former should be scrutinized more closely.


Conclusion: The majority finds that the taking of land is constitutional and upholds the trial court’s decision.


Notes and Questions


1.     It doesn’t look like it.  Judicial review of government land grabs as authorized by legislatures is very limited both under the United States Constitution and under the Michigan Constitution.

2.     This is a disaster.  It’s a huge wealth transfer from private individuals, mostly poor, to a private corporation.  I think it is entirely unjustifiable.  It reminds me of a sports team holding a city for ransom by threatening to move to another city.  If they would make more money in another city, they should just go there.  In this case, if GM would be more profitable by moving their plant to a sunbelt state, they should just go and do that.  Another way to reduce unemployment in Detroit would be to have some people move to another city where there are more jobs.  It also would be very difficult to accurately compensate people for the total cost of moving out of their homes.  Some people have more of a sentimental connection to the neighborhood than others, and ideally those people should be compensated more.  However, there would be a great incentive for those without much of an emotional attachment to act like they have more of an attachment in order to get more money.  It is almost certain that the residents of the neighborhood will be left undercompensated.

3.     This seems a little hypocritical.  If you really believe that what the city or state or corporation are doing is wrong, I think you shouldn’t help them in the first place.  If you give them your legal services while really believing that they’re wrong and they actually win, it shows that either the system doesn’t work, or you’re wrong.  If you’re wrong, you shouldn’t advocate legislation that will change the (correct) result in the future.  If the system doesn’t work, then you were wrong in the first place helping a bad policy win.

4.     Okay!


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