News Brief

By David M. McNabb

U.S. high court continues to re-define Constitution

As the U.S. Supreme Court concluded its current session, it issued several rulings that have created a nationwide stir. The supposedly "conservative" court has found itself 180 degrees out of phase with American conservatives, particularly with regards to the first and fifth Constitutional amendments.

In one ruling, the Court determined that cities may seize private property to make way for shopping centers or other private developments. The decision, involving New London, Conn., homeowners, said that the city could claim the houses by eminent domain. The city claimed the land taken was for public use, since the proposed private development promises to bring more jobs and tax revenue.

The fifth amendment's last clause states, "...nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Historically, "public use" was interpreted to mean that land could be taken for railroads and public utility companies. More recently, it has been expanded to include private land located in areas targeted for municipal revitalization projects. This latest court ruling, however, marks the first time that "public use" was defined as developments that promise greater tax revenues.

The precedent has now been set. All a developer has to do is promise (not ensure) greater tax revenue from a proposed project on someone's land, and the temptation for cash-strapped cities to claim it by eminent domain may be too great to resist.

The first amendment also found itself in the Supreme Court's cross-hairs. This time, however, the court was somehow able to give both sides apparent victories. Two 5-4 decisions left the nation wondering just exactly when it is acceptable to display religious symbols publicly: specifically the Ten Commandments.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer was the only one to find himself on both sides of the issue: on the one hand, voting to prevent two Kentucky courthouses from displaying the Ten Commandments inside their buildings, while, on the other hand, allowing a 6-foot granite monument to remain on the grounds of the Texas Capitol.

Advocates on both sides claimed partial victory, while realizing that the split decisions left the issue basically unresolved. The decision left the issue as a case-by-case scenario.

The close, 5-4 decisions in each of these cases further highlighted the importance of the vacancies expected in the high court in the near future. Particularly with Chief Justice William Rehnquist's failing health, all eyes will be upon the President and the Congress, to see how things will take shape.