So much for checks and balances.
We are disappointed that the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by 11 slated-to-be-evicted property owners in the Atlantic Yards footprint.
While we sympathize with some of the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case, Goldstein v. Pataki, our irritation with the High Court stems more from our belief in a fundamental American principal: each branch of government must balance the power of the other branches.
At its core, the issue in this case is New York State’s insistence that Bruce Ratner’s basketball arena, office and housing mega-project will bring about a “public benefit.” The declaration of such a “public benefit” enables the state to use its eminent domain power to seize the 11 properties from their owners and give them to Ratner.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that when states condemn private property for a public benefit, they do not violate the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.
But in its most-recent ruling on such takings — the 2005 Kelo decision — the High Court declared that the “public benefit” cannot merely be a pretext for handing over one person’s land to another person.
In a word, the benefit must be real.
But who determines if the public actually benefits from a development? In its brief to the High Court, state officials said that only the state itself has the power to make that determination.
The 11 plaintiffs in Goldstein v. Pataki allege that a corrupt and cronyism-riddled Empire State Development Corporation simply used the pretext of public benefit to hand over properties so Ratner could make millions. Two federal courts have declined to examine this claim, saying that judges have no role in hearing challenges to a state’s determination that a project is a “public benefit.”
So, if a state agency says that a project is a “public benefit,” it is, de facto, a public benefit.
But what if the so-called “public benefit” isn’t a benefit at all?
At the very least, plaintiffs should be able to take their case to a presumably impartial judge who would be empowered to determine whether the state cooked up a “public benefit” merely to justify a land grab for a wholly private benefit.
The Empire State Development Corporation argues that judges have no business meddling with the back room dealings of state officials and the developers with whom they conspire — and the Supreme Court, in not taking up Goldstein v. Pataki, let this argument stand.
“The role of the judiciary in determining whether [eminent domain] power is being exercised for a public purpose is an extremely narrow one,” state lawyers wrote.
In other words, there are no checks and balances when eminent domain is involved.