Patriots: For over 25 years, your generosity has made it possible to offer The Patriot Post without a subscription fee to military personnel, students, and those with limited means. Please support the 2022 Independence Day Campaign today.

George Will / April 12, 2009

Racing Past The Constitution

WASHINGTON – Rampant redistribution of wealth by government is now the norm. So is this: It inflames government’s natural rapaciousness and subverts the rule of law. This degeneration of governance is illustrated by the Illinois Legislature’s transfer of income from some disfavored riverboat casinos to racetracks.

Illinois has nine licensed riverboat casinos and five horse-racing tracks. In 2006, supposedly to “address the negative impact that riverboat gaming has had” on Illinois horse racing, the Legislature – racing interests made huge contributions to Gov. Rod Blagojevich – mandated a transfer of 3 percent of the gross receipts of the four most profitable casinos, those in the Chicago area, to the state’s horse-racing tracks. This levy, subsequently extended to run until 2011, will confiscate substantially more than $100 million.

What is to prevent legislators from taking revenues from Wal-Mart and giving them to local retailers? Or from chain drugstores to local pharmacies? Not the tattered remnant of the Constitution’s takings clause.

The Fifth Amendment says private property shall not “be taken for public use without just compensation” (emphasis added). Fifty state constitutions also stipulate taking only for public uses. But the Illinois Supreme Court ignored the public use question. Instead, the court said it is “well settled” that the takings clause applies only to government’s exercise of its eminent domain power regarding land, buildings and other tangible or intellectual property – but not money.

Conflicting rulings by state courts demonstrate that that question is chaotically unsettled. That is one reason the U.S. Supreme Court should take the Illinois case and reject the preposterous idea that money is not property within the scope of the takings clause – an idea that licenses legislative confiscations. Another and related reason why the court should take the case is to reconsider its 2005 ruling that rendered the “public purpose” requirement empty.

The careful crafters of the Bill of Rights intended the adjective “public” to restrict government takings to uses directly owned by government or primarily serving the general public, such as roads, bridges or public buildings. In 1954, in a case arising from a disease-ridden section of Washington, D.C., the court broadened the “public use” criterion. It declared constitutional takings for the purpose of combating “blight” that is harmful to the larger community.

In 2005, however, in a 5-4 decision, the court radically attenuated the “public use” restriction on takings, saying that promoting “economic development” is a sufficient public use. The court upheld the New London, Conn., city government’s decision to seize an unblighted middle-class neighborhood for the purpose of turning the land over to private businesses which, being wealthier than the previous owners, would be a richer source of tax revenues. So now government takings need have only some anticipated public benefit, however indirect and derivative, at the end of some chain of causation hypothesized by the government doing the taking and benefiting from it.

In a brief opposing the Illinois Legislature, the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of state legislators, makes this argument against “predatory taxation”: Suppose Congress, eager to aid newspapers hurt by competition from new information technologies, decides to take a percentage of the assets of Bill Gates and half a dozen other beneficiaries of those technologies, and give the money to newspapers. Would not this “take and transfer” scheme be unconstitutional? Targeting specific, identifiable persons or entities for unfavorable treatment, and transferring their assets to equally identifiable persons or entities, surely also raises equal protection issues.

Unquestionably a legislature can impose a levy on casinos if the revenues become subject to what the state legislators’ brief calls “allocation via the familiar push and pull of political decision-making.” But Illinois’ confiscation of riverboat revenues is a private-pockets-to-private-pockets transfer, without even laundering the money through the state treasury.

The Supreme Court has held that “one person’s property may not be taken for the benefit of another private person without a justifying public purpose.” But in the aftermath of the court’s ruling in the New London case, the Illinois Legislature merely seeks judicial deference toward its judgment that transferring wealth from casinos to racetracks serves the public purpose of benefiting “farmers, breeders, and fans of horse racing.”

The court’s virtual nullification of the “public use” requirement encourages lawlessness, which will proliferate until the court enunciates the constitutional principle that the takings clause protects money, like other forms of property, against egregious seizures. Enunciating such a principle would be a step toward restoring meaning to the “public purpose” clause.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

Start a conversation using these share links:

Who We Are

The Patriot Post is a highly acclaimed weekday digest of news analysis, policy and opinion written from the heartland — as opposed to the MSM’s ubiquitous Beltway echo chambers — for grassroots leaders nationwide. More

What We Offer

On the Web

We provide solid conservative perspective on the most important issues, including analysis, opinion columns, headline summaries, memes, cartoons and much more.

Via Email

Choose our full-length Digest or our quick-reading Snapshot for a summary of important news. We also offer Cartoons & Memes on Monday and Alexander’s column on Wednesday.

Our Mission

The Patriot Post is steadfast in our mission to extend the endowment of Liberty to the next generation by advocating for individual rights and responsibilities, supporting the restoration of constitutional limits on government and the judiciary, and promoting free enterprise, national defense and traditional American values. We are a rock-solid conservative touchstone for the expanding ranks of grassroots Americans Patriots from all walks of life. Our mission and operation budgets are not financed by any political or special interest groups, and to protect our editorial integrity, we accept no advertising. We are sustained solely by you. Please support The Patriot Fund today!

★ PUBLIUS ★

“Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!” —George Washington

The Patriot Post is protected speech, as enumerated in the First Amendment and enforced by the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, in accordance with the endowed and unalienable Rights of All Mankind.

Copyright © 2022 The Patriot Post. All Rights Reserved.

The Patriot Post does not support Internet Explorer. We recommend installing the latest version of Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, or Google Chrome.