Fred Thompson’s Record on Eminent Domain

Fred Thompson’s Record on Eminent Domain

Settling for Narrow Regulation; Support for a Ban on Funds for States Allowing Eminent Domain for Private Use; A Missed Chance.

One grim morning in 1998, about 50 property owners in the rolling hills of Marion County, Tennessee, woke up to the news that a private gas company was trying to take part of their land for a natural gas pipeline. The company, US Gypsum, had been given the authority of eminent domain by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who saw more benefits in the jobs the company would bring to the region than what the families had to offer.

The residents hastily organized to fight it, and drafted the support of then-Senator Fred Thompson, who represented the state. Thompson spoke out in disgust at the prospect of this private company taking these families’ land, but in the end, they lost their fight. The families had already missed their window to appeal, since their eminent domain hearings had already happened. The hearings were announced in the Federal Register, but none of the property owners saw it, and thus were left with no recourse.

Prior to this, Thompson had supported an unsuccessful bill that would have given private property owners redress to sue the government if their property value suffered from government actions. So rather than challenge the rights of a private company to take their land, it was this lack of warning that motivated him to introduce legislation regarding the matter.

“If you do not happen to read the Federal Register on a daily basis you will never know that your property is about to be taken,” Thompson said when he introduced his bill. “Quite frankly, the Federal Register is not likely read in Marion County, TN, not by them and not by me, either, I might add. If you do not read it, the fact that your land is in jeopardy might be news to you until it is too late.”

His solution was to force any private company seeking to take somebody’s land to send them certified mail in a timely fashion so that they may respond to the threat. But he let the bill die when the Energy Regulatory Commission introduced narrow regulation stipulating that landowners threatened by natural gas pipelines be given sufficient opportunity to protest.

The travail of bucolic Marion County — where one mile of land gives way to only 55 residents on average – is certainly no urban anecdote. But it is the most visible experience Thompson has had on a plank in his platform that is of particular concern to urban voters. “The Fifth Amendment,” the Republican candidate commented this July, “guarantees that ‘private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.’”

To discourage eminent domain for private industry, he voiced support for legislation currently making its way through the House that would bar federal economic development funds for a state that allows the use of eminent domain for private commercial development. It has the bi-partisan support of representatives from nearly half the states. But the recently introduced bill would have allowed for the pipeline in Marion County, as it provides an exception for the use of land for pipelines, among other things. (Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic presidential contender, is a co-sponsor of that bill.)

Another solution Thompson proposed was to reissue an Executive Order from the Reagan Administration that directs federal agencies to first assess what impact their actions might have on private property. While a House bill that would have written that Executive Order into law was introduced over and over again during Thompson’s time as a senator, however, no Senate companion bill was ever introduced.

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