Berman v. Parker

Decision Date22 November 1954
Docket NumberNo. 22,22
Citation99 L.Ed. 27,348 U.S. 26,75 S.Ct. 98
PartiesSamuel BERMAN and Solomon H. Feldman, Executors of the State of Max R. Morris, Deceased, Appellants, v. Andrew PARKER, John A. Remon, James E. Colliflower, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 26-27 intentionally omitted] Messrs.James C. Toomey and Joseph H. Schneider, Washington, D.C., for appellants.

Mr. Simon E. Sobeloff, Sol. Gen., Washington, D.C., for appellees.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an appeal, 28 U.S.C. § 1253, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1253, from the judgment of a three-judge District Court which dismissed a complaint seeking to enjoin the condemnation of appellants' property under the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act of 1945, 60 Stat. 790, D.C.Code 1951, §§ 5—701 to 5—719. The challenge was to the constitutionality of the Act, particularly as applied to the taking of appellants' property. The District Court sustained the constitutionality of the Act. 117 F.Supp. 705.

By § 2 of the Act, Congress made a 'legislative determination' that 'owing to technological and sociological changes, obsolete lay-out, and other factors, conditions existing in the District of Columbia with respect to substandard housing and blighted areas, including the use of buildings in alleys as dwellings for human habitation, are injurious to the public health, safety, morals, and welfare, and it is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to protect and promote the welfare of the inhabitants of the seat of the Government by eliminating all such injurious conditions by employing all means necessary and appropriate for the purpose'.1

Section 2 goes on to declare that acquisition of property is necessary to eliminate these housing conditions.

Congress further finds in § 2 that these ends cannot be attained 'by the ordinary operations of private enterprise alone without public participation'; that 'the sound replanning and redevelopment of an obsolescent or obsolescing portion' of the District 'cannot be accomplished unless it be done in the light of comprehensive and coordinated planning of the whole of the territory of the District of Columbia and its environs'; and that 'the acquisition and the assembly of real property and the leasing or sale thereof for redevelopment pursuant to a project area redevelopment plan * * * is hereby declared to be a public use.'

Section 4 creates the District of Columbia Redevelopment Land Agency (hereinafter called the Agency), composed of five members, which is granted power by § 5(a) to acquire and assemble, by eminent domain and otherwise, real property for 'the redevelopment of blighted territory in the District of Columbia and the prevention, reduction, or elimination of blighting factors or causes of blight'.

Section 6(a) of the Act directs the National Capital Planning Commission (hereinafter called the Planning Commission) to make and develop 'a comprehensive or general plan' of the District, including 'a land-use plan' which designates land for use for 'housing, business, industry, recreation, education, public buildings, public reservations, and other general categories of public and private uses of the land.' Section 6(b) authorizes the Planning Commission to adopt redevelopment plans for specific project areas. These plans are subject to the approval of the District Commissioners after a public hearing; and they prescribe the various public and private land uses for the respective areas, the 'standards of population density and building intensity', and 'the amount or character or class of any low-rent housing'. § 6(b).

Once the Planning Commission adopts a plan and that plan is approved by the Commissioners, the Planning Commission certifies it to the Agency. § 6(d). At that point, the Agency is authorized to acquire and assemble the real property in the area. Id.

After the real estate has been assembled, the Agency is authorized to transfer to public agencies the land to be devoted to such public purposes as streets, utilities, recreational facilities, and schools, § 7(a), and to lease or sell the remainder as an entirety or in parts to a redevelopment company, individual, or partnership. § 7(b), (f). The leases or sales must provide that the lessees or purchasers will carry out the redevelopment plan and that 'no use shall be made of any land or real property included in the lease or sale nor any building or structure erected thereon' which does not conform to the plan. §§ 7(d), 11. Preference is to be given to private enterprise over public agencies in executing the redevelopment plan. § 7(g).

The first project undertaken under the Act relates to Project Area B in Southwest Washington, D.C. In 1950 the Planning Commission prepared and published a comprehensive plan for the District. Surveys revealed that in Area B, 64.3% of the dwellings were beyond repair, 18.4% needed major repairs, only 17.3% were satisfactory; 57.8% of the dwellings had outside toilets, 60.3% had no baths, 29.3% lacked electricity, 82.2% had no wash basins or laundry tubs, 83.8% lacked central heating. In the judgment of the District's Director of Health it was necessary to redevelop Area B in the interests of public health. The population of Area B amounted to 5,012 persons, of whom 97.5% were Negroes.

The plan for Area B specifies the boundaries and allocates the use of the land for various purposes. It makes detailed provisions for types of dwelling units and provides that at least one-third of them are to be low-rent housing with a maximum rental of $17 per room per month.

After a public hearing, the Commissioners approved the plan and the Planning Commission certified it to the Agency for execution. The Agency undertook the preliminary steps for redevelopment of the area when this suit was brought.

Appellants own property in Area B at 712 Fourth Street, S.W. It is not used as a dwelling or place of habitation. A department store is located on it. Appellants object to the appropriation of this property for the purposes of the project. They claim that their property may not to taken constitutionally for this project. It is commercial, not residential property; it is not slum housing; it will be put into the project under the management of a private, not a public, agency and redeveloped for private, not public, use. That is the argument; and the contention is that appellants' private property is being taken contrary to two mandates of the Fifth Amendment(1) 'No person shall * * * be deprived of * * * property, without due process of law'; (2) 'nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.' To take for the purpose of ridding the area of slums is one thing; it is quite another, the argument goes, to take a man's property merely to develop a better balanced, more attractive community. The District Court, while agreeing in general with that argument, saved the Act by construing it to mean that the Agency could condemn property only for the reasonable necessities of slum clearance and prevention, its concept of 'slum' being the existence of conditions 'injurious to the public health, safety, morals and welfare.' 117 F.Supp. 705, 724—725.

The power of Congress over the District of Columbia includes all the legislative powers which a state may exercise over its affairs. See District of Columbia v. John R. Thomp- son Co., 346 U.S. 100, 108, 73 S.Ct. 1007, 1011, 97 L.Ed. 1480. We deal, in other words, with what traditionally has been known as the police power. An attempt to define its reach or trace its outer limits is fruitless, for each case must turn on its own facts. The definition is essentially the product of legislative determinations addressed to the purposes of government, purposes neither abstractly nor historically capable of complete definition. Subject to specific constitutional limitations, when the legislature has spoken, the public interest has been declared in terms well-nigh conclusive. In such cases the legislature, not the judiciary, is the main guardian of the public needs to be served by social legislation, whether it be Congress legislating concerning the District of Columbia, see Block v. Hirsh, 256 U.S. 135, 41 S.Ct. 458, 65 L.Ed. 865, or the States legislating concerning local affairs. See Olsen v. State of Nebraska, 313 U.S. 236, 61 S.Ct. 862, 85 L.Ed. 1305; Lincoln Federal Labor Union No. 19129, A.F. of L. v. Northwestern Co., 335 U.S. 525, 69 S.Ct. 251, 93 L.Ed. 212; California State Ass'n Inter-Ins. Bureau v. Maloney, 341 U.S. 105, 71 S.Ct. 601, 95 L.Ed. 788. This principle admits of no exception merely because the power of eminent domain is involved. The role of the judiciary in determining whether that power is being exercised for a public purpose is an extremely narrow one. See Old Dominion Land Co. v. United States, 269 U.S. 55, 66, 46 S.Ct. 39, 40, 70 L.Ed. 162; United States ex rel. Tennessee Valley Authority v. Welch, 327 U.S. 546, 552, 66 S.Ct. 715, 718, 90 L.Ed. 843.

Public safety, public health, morality, peace and quiet, law and order—these are some of the more conspicuous examples of the traditional application of the police power to municipal affairs. Yet they merely illustrate the scope of the power and do not delimit it. See Noble State Bank v. Haskell, 219 U.S. 104, 111, 31 S.Ct. 186, 188, 55 L.Ed. 112. Miserable and disreputable housing conditions may do more than spread disease and crime and immorality. They may also suffocate the spirit by reducing the people...

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