Earlier today, at a ceremonial bill signing in the historic old Senate chamber in Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol (see our Flickr slide show), Governor Bob McDonnell signed two important pieces of legislation intended to enshrine in the Virginia Constitution the right to property as a fundamental right. One bill authorizes the placing of the proposed property rights constitutional amendment on the ballot for voter ratification this November and the other provides definitions of just compensation for lost access and profit in addition to the cost of land government takes through eminent domain. Including private property rights in the constitution as a “fundamental right” carries extraordinary weight in the law and further safeguards the right. That is to say, these rights will reinforce in the constitution who the sovereign is – the people, not the government.
Governor McDonnell said the ceremony was scheduled for the historic room because it was a historic day. In 18th century legal terms, “Pursuit of happiness” was nomenclature for property. Virginia’s own George Mason, who inspired the Bill of Rights, could never have envisioned the abuses perpetrated by governments on citizens under the misreading of the Fifth Amendment. In fact, the Governor called the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo decision, which upheld governments’ ability to seize private property almost at will, one of its worst ever decisions.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has led on this issue since his days as a state Senator, outlined the four reforms the constitutional amendment will provide for Virginians if ratified: government will be able to take private property only for a true public use and not for private gain (the Kelo decision allows this unless specifically prohibited by states), nor can it be used for “economic development” or to “increase the tax base” or any other such purpose. It also guarantees the expenses must be borne by the government, not the individual. If it is that important to the public to take someone’s land, the public must pay for it. It also prohibits the government from taking more land than is necessary and that the burden of proof must be on the condemner.
But the day was more than about the legalities. It pointed out the pain and heartbreak of Virginians who work hard to obtain a goal – a house, a business, a farm – and to obtain a share of the American dream, only to have it ripped away from them while government profits from their hard labor. That is every bit as fundamentally unjust as the proposed protections are fundamentally right. When government takes away property, it chips away at liberty. It is long overdue for this basic right to be placed in our constitution for permanent protection.
Also at the ceremony today were the patrons of the legislation: Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26, Harrisonburg), Delegate Rob Bell (R-58, Albermarle County) and Delegate Johnny Joannou (D-79, Portsmouth). All deflected credit to the many who have worked on this issue for years, and spoke of the greater good securing these rights will do for society now and for generations to come. In addition to thanking these outstanding patrons, Governor McDonnell, Attorney General Cuccinelli, thanks also goes to Lt. Governor Bill Bolling for his key tie-breaking vote this past year session when opponents thought they had killed the process through procedure to escape going on the record with a recorded vote.
The leaders in attendance graciously thanked the coalition that worked so hard and in tandem the last several years, including The Farm Bureau of Virginia, the Virginia Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, the Virginia Forestry Council, the Virginia Agribusiness Council, the Virginia Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Virginia Property Rights Coalition and The Family Foundation. We add our heartfelt thanks to all the hard work and dedication to our outstanding coalition partners.
Now, there is one more step: To ratify the constitutional amendment at the polls in November. The Family Foundation will work with the organizations above to ensure that Virginians are ready to Vote Yes! On Amendment One this November. Please start passing the word now about the importance of this vote by forwarding this e-mail and making reference to it on your social media sites, while we will update you throughout the campaign.