The 2016 presidential campaign has yielded interesting and sometimes controversial policy positions from Donald Trump. But a lesser well-known fact is Trump’s position on eminent domain. Despite being a Republican candidate, Trump has openly supported the seizure of private property for “public” use with “public” being a very loose term that allows the government a broad mandate with respect to property rights.
Trump’s policy views on eminent domain are best explained by two cases in which he attempted to use government agencies to condemn properties for his businesses. In Trump v. Coking, Trump tried to purchase the home of Vera Coking to expand his hotel and casino in the state of New Jersey. When Coking refused to sell her home, Trump turned to a governmental agency–the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA)–which would get him the property at a fraction of the market value using its power of eminent domain. New Jersey’s CRDA filed a lawsuit instructing Coking to vacate the property within 90 days and offering compensation of only $251,000. Coking fought back in court and ultimately won, forcing Trump to abandon his casino plans. Trump’s response? “I think that would have been a good eminent domain because you would have provided thousands of jobs. And this is a woman who couldn’t have cared less about her house. All she wanted was money.”
In another case, Trump claimed he would transform Bridgeport, Connecticut into “a national tourist destination” by building a $350m office and entertainment complex on the waterfront. Unfortunately, five businesses owned the land that Trump wanted. Trump’s lawyers circumvented this obstacle by making the City a partner with Trump Connecticut, Inc. and obtaining the land through the City’s use of its eminent domain power. Trump would later buy the land from the City. In the end, the project fell apart.
In a 2005 Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, the Court held that the city of New London, Connecticut could condemn the property of Susette Kelo and her neighbors so that Pfizer could build a research facility. However, the private developer was unable to finance the redevelopment project, leaving the land an empty lot that benefits no-one. The Court decision set a precedent that allows virtually any public benefit to count as public use, serving as an easy justification for using the power of eminent domain.
Although prohibited by State law in Texas, large corporations and business tycoons like Donald Trump can partner with governmental agencies to extract private favors in other jurisdictions. What’s interesting about Trump is that his views on eminent domain are not shared by many fellow Republicans. A conservative group, Club for Growth Action launched an ad campaign attacking Trump for making many lose their property rights. In a rare situation, many Democrats and Republicans are united in opposing the abusive use of eminent domain, leaving Trump in the small group of extremely wealthy Americans that can leverage their wealth to bend the law in their favor.
Co-authored by Maithili Bagaria and Justin Hodge.