2 minute read

Berman v. Parker

Rebuilding The Nation's Capital

In 1950, the Planning Commission proposed to begin redevelopment in the District's southwestern area. In that section lived some 5,000 persons, 98 percent of whom were considered to be African American. Surveys prepared for the commission suggested that residential dwellings in the area were run down. According to these surveys, some 58 percent had only outdoor toilets. More than 80 percent had no central heating, and 29 percent had no electricity. The commission estimated that two out of three dwellings were beyond repair.

The Planning Commission's scheme for this blighted area was approved by the District Commission, which served as Washington's local government. Upon its approval, the plan was certified to the Redevelopment Land Agency. This agency had the task of actually acquiring the property in the area. Once it assembled the land, the agency would transfer to public agencies property to be used for public purposes, such as streets, parks, and schools. It would then lease or sell the remaining land to one or more private companies or individuals.

Included in the property to be condemned under the 1950 redevelopment plan was a department store in reasonably good condition. The store's owners brought suit to prevent the government from seizing their property. Since their store posed no threat to public order, health, or safety, the owners argued its confiscation would not to serve any legitimate public purpose.

Moreover, they argued their property was not being taken for "public use" as specified in the Fifth Amendment. The Redevelopment Agency planned to transfer their land to a private owner, who would develop it for his own private use. When the District Court upheld the Redevelopment Act's constitutionality and dismissed their claim, the store's owners appealed to the Supreme Court.

Writing the opinion for a unanimous court, Justice Douglas affirmed the District Court's decision. Simply by the act of paying compensation, the government demonstrated that an act had a "public" purpose. The people's agreement to payment was sufficient to prove that the public somehow benefits whenever property is transferred from one private owner to another private owner.

Within the District of Columbia, Douglas noted, Congress has "all the legislative powers which a state may exercise over its affairs." Since each case was different, no exact definition of these "police powers" was possible. In economic matters, a legislature could do pretty much anything it wanted to do. Certainly it was up to the legislature to decide that "the public needs to be served by social legislation." Douglas also noted that even in cases of eminent domain, when the government seizes people's homes and property, "the role of the judiciary . . . is an extremely narrow one."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Berman v. Parker - Significance, Rebuilding The Nation's Capital, There Are No Limits On The Public's Needs