Starting in 2013 Eagle Forum of San Juan County has awarded a scholarship to an Orcas Graduating Senior. The Senior must write a an essay answering the question “What is your favorite amendment to the Constitution and why?”
2013 Essay Winner and 1st Eagle Forum Scholarship a $500 prize was awarded to Max Blackador. Blackador submitted the following essay on the Fifth Amendment.
Defending the Fifth
Essay for the Eagle Forum scholarship competition
The Fifth Amendment is often used to defend the accused from being punished on unfounded or false accusations and allays the possibility of being called to bear witness against oneself. However, the Fifth Amendment has one seemingly inconsequential clause that makes it my favorite: “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” In this short string of words, the constitution lays out the founding fathers’ strong stance on the rights of the individual.
The clause regarding ‘just compensation’ is typically used in the best interest for the public that which is affected by it. For instance, local, state, or the federal government may use this clause, often known as eminent domain, from the Latin dominium eminens, to build freeways, hospitals, schools, and other substantial civic buildings. While these causes are very worthy causes, there have been increasingly notorious instances of abuse regarding this government power.
A prime example of such abuse came in 2005 when a developer in Connecticut made an agreement with city of New London whereby they would use the constitutionally permitted system of ‘just compensation’ to buy a multitude of waterfront homes at their fair market value. These homes would then be sold to the developer at a substantial profit, allowing for the construction of a hotel complex in place of the single-family homes. When the case came before the supreme court of the United States, the justices sided 5-4 in favor of the City’s plan. The houses were bought and demolished. However, the developer failed to secure financing for the project and backed out, and thus the city was left with a vacant lot, which they now collect no tax revenue on. At the time of the ordeal, the Christian Science Monitor conducted a poll, showing that 98.5% of Americans disapproved of the city’s use of eminent domain. In the way of this public affairs disaster, 48 states in the union have modified their laws regarding eminent domain to prevent similar cases of injustice.
Just compensation should also include compensation for diminishing a property’s use value, even if the owner retains the property. It has become common practice to “rezone” property, which was also validated by a Supreme Court ruling in 1926 calling zoning changes a legitimate use of the “police powers” of the state under the Fifth Amendment. In the 1926 case, the construction of a large industrial complex was prevented, which likely persevered the town’s quality and way of life. However, cases in which the zoning of seemingly equal neighboring properties are changed after the sale of the land to a new buyer the ruling becomes much less applicable. This happens more often than you might think. The forty acres of land that my grand parents purchased near Eastsound with hopes of future subdivision was rezoned from one house per ten acres as is the case on neighboring parcels, to one house per twenty acres with no stated reason or compensation from the county. In an example similar to that of the 2005 case regarding Connecticut, the local Stihl Saw shop suffered the consequences of zoning abuse. After securing permitting and beginning construction on an expansion, a consortium of local businesses conspired to prevent the store from finishing its expansion and selling competing products by attempting to force a change in zoning regulations due to proximity to the local airport. The zoning regulations are set with concern for health, safety and community well being. Aberrations in these parameters serve as violations to the Fifth Amendment.
The Fifth serves to insure that an unjust police state does not develop to extending vast powers over its people. The American way of life would not be possible without it. This amendment, and all of the individual rights that it stands for, is by far my favorite and is a staple our everyday existence. Though the amendment is a strong statement on the limitations of the government’s control over its people, it requires equally strong people to maintain it in an ever-changing world—something I fully intend to do as I take the Oath of Office to be inducted into the Naval Academy on June 27th this year.