Eminent domain case illustrates the power of words.

July 25, 2011

Today, a Hinds County, Mississippi judge will hear arguments in a case regarding Initiative # 31, which is summarized as follows: Should government be prohibited from taking private property by eminent domain and then transferring it to other persons?  Initiative # 31 will appear on the November 8, 2011 election ballot unless the courts strike it down.  My purpose in this blog is not to argue for or against the initiative, but to point out how words matter.  Words can be powerful because of the ways in which they are interpreted.

“Take” is a strong word. It is strong because for most people it evokes image and emotion in the mind of the hearer.  The synonyms listed in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary for “take” are as follows:  take, seize, grasp, clutch, snatch and grab.  The comments section of an online article in today’s Clarion-Ledger illustrate the emotional reaction to the subject.

Yet mention the word to an attorney and there will probably be less negative emotion because attorneys know that in the legal sense a “taking” is referring to the condemnation process.  Wait.  I just used another word – condemnation – that has one meaning to the legal world, but a different  meaning in the public world.

To condemn is to “…to declare to be reprehensible, wrong, or evil usually after weighing evidence and without reservation,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.    But according to the legal dictionary at www.law.com, condemn has the following meaning:  ” 1) for a public agency to determine that a building is unsafe or unfit for habitation and must be torn down or rebuilt to meet building and health code requirements. 2) for a governmental agency to take private property for public use under the right of eminent domain, but constitutionally the property owner must receive just compensation. If an agreement cannot be reached then the owner is entitled to a court determination of value in a condemnation action (lawsuit), but the public body can take the property immediately upon deposit of the estimated value. 3) to sentence a convicted defendant to death. 4) send to prison.”

If I “condemned” your property would I be expressing disapproval of it or would I be taking it?

According to Merriam-Webster, “take” is defined as follows:

1 : to get into one’s hands or into one’s possession, power, or control: as

a : to seize or capture physically <took them as prisoners>

b : to get possession of (as fish or game) by killing or capturing

c (1) : to move against (as an opponent’s piece in chess) and remove from play (2) : to win in a card game <able to take 12 tricks>

d : to acquire by eminent domain

“Take” is nothing if not the operative word in Initiative # 31.

In some of the public hearings held on this issue citizens were heard to say that they were against the government “taking” private property.  Yet when told that if a property was “taken” only after the government paid the owner fair market value, and that if the owner disagreed with the government’s offer then the price to be paid would be decided by a juror these same citizens often replied, “Well, that’s different.”

So words matter.

By the way, the LEGAL issue before the court is not about eminent domain.  It is whether the initiative and referendum process can be used to amend the Bill of Rights of the  Mississippi Constitution.

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