The Wisconsin Court of Appeals acted yesterday to protect property owners’ rights to receive full and just compensation when government takes their land with eminent domain. Eminent domain is the power possessed by the federal and state governments to take land from people against their will, so long as they pay “just compensation” for it. This ruling reaffirms the right of a property owner to present their own evidence on how much a partial taking diminishes the value of their property.
In Savage v. American Transmission Company, ATC possessed a 20-foot-wide easement across John Savage’s property in Winnebago County. An easement is a property right that allows somebody who is not the owner of land to enter the land and use it for specified purposes. ATC’s easement permitted it to “erect, maintain, and operate a high-voltage transmission line.” ATC wanted to purchase another 20-foot easement, adjacent to the existing one, to “add additional conductors (wires) to an existing transmission line”: basically, to widen the existing transmission lines.
John refused to sell this right to ATC. In response, ATC – a private company that has been granted some quasi-governmental powers – used eminent domain to seize the easement. John was unsatisfied with the “just compensation” he was offered for his loss, and filed a lawsuit asking a jury to determine the amount of his loss, which was his right to request. The circuit court judge however, after listening to ATC’s expert testify as to the value of the easement, refused to allow John to present his own expert testimony, and granted summary judgment to ATC, preventing a jury from hearing his case.
The court of appeals, in a strongly-worded opinion, reversed the lower court, restoring John’s right to present his own evidence and have a jury of his peers determine the value of the property taken against his will by the government. The court spoke strongly of private property rights and the safeguards in place to prevent government abuse of eminent domain:
Savage’s property rights were taken against his will and without his consent. Proceedings to determine just compensation for a taking by eminent domain are intended to benefit an owner whose property is taken against his or her will. Given that the government statutorily allows eminent domain and writes the rules on how just compensation is determined, it is proper public policy that a private citizen whose property is taken has the statutory right to have just compensation determined by a jury of his or her peers rather than by an arm of the same government that authorized the taking of the citizen’s property in the first place.