Landmark Supreme Court Case: Berman v. Parker (1954)
Berman v. Parker (1954) is the 101st landmark Supreme Court case, 35th in the Economics module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Berman v. Parker (1954)
The United States Congress passed the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act of 1945 to address the vast blighted area found in the District of Columbia. The Act created a commission of five members called the District of Columbia Redevelopment Land Agency and granted it the power to redevelop blighted areas and eliminate any “blighting factors or causes of blight.” The act granted the Agency the power of eminent domain, if necessary, to transfer private property from the original owner to a private entity to serve the public purpose of redevelopment. The Act was not only concerned with clearing slums but also with modernizing the urban environment.
The first project under the Act was Project Area B in Southwest Washington, D.C. In 1950, a comprehensive plan for the area was published after surveys indicated that in that area:
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, 29.6% lacked electricity, 82.2% had no wash basins or laundry tubs, 83.8% lacked central heating.
The plan made provisions for the types of dwelling units and provided that “at least one-third of them [were] to be low-rent housing with a maximum rental of $17 per room per month.” The plan was approved by the Commissioners and the Agency began redevelopment of the area. It was during the beginning stages of this redevelopment that the plaintiffs brought suit to challenge the constitutionality of the taking of their department store, located at 712 Fourth Street, S.W. in Area B.
The plaintiffs in the case owned a department store that was not itself blighted but that was scheduled to be taken by eminent domain in order to clear the larger blighted area where it was located. Plaintiffs argued that this property was not slum housing and that it could not be taken for a project under the management of a private agency to be redeveloped for private use simply to make the community more attractive overall. The owners further argued that taking the land under eminent domain and giving it to redevelopers amounted to “a taking from one businessman for the benefit of another businessman” and did not constitute a public use, thus violating the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
Berman’s challenge to the constitutionality of the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act was heard by a special three-judge panel district court found no problem with the government’s use of eminent domain to clear blighted structures because it could be seen as the abatement of a public nuisance. However, Judge Prettyman saw the land on which the blighted structures were located as a different matter and as having nothing inherently to do with blight. Such land, he felt, could be taken by eminent domain only if it actually helped to combat the blight that existed on the property.
Judge Prettyman ultimately read the Redevelopment Act very narrowly and found that non-blighted property could be taken if the taking could be tied to prevention of blight. He firmly stated, however, that eminent domain could not be used by the government to take private property for the purpose of improving economic or aesthetic conditions of neighborhoods. Therefore, he granted the government’s motion to dismiss but also raised the seriousness of using eminent domain to serve broad redevelopment projects. The plaintiffs then appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Berman Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Did the seizing of Berman and the other appellants’ property for the purpose of beautification and redevelopment of the community violate the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment?
A: No. The Fifth Amendment does not limit Congress’ power to seize private property with just compensation to any specific purpose.
Unanimous holding the taking of private property for a public purpose, provided that just compensation is paid, does not violate the Fifth Amendment. The power to determine what values to consider in seizing property for public welfare is Congress’ alone.
If those who govern the District of Columbia decide that the Nation’s Capital should be beautiful as well as sanitary, there is nothing in the Fifth Amendment that stands in the way.
The problem of large-scale blight needed to be addressed by a large-scale integrated redevelopment plan. As the Planning Commission had made detailed plans and taken extensive surveys of the area in question, the Court argued for judicial restraint. The judgment of the District Court was affirmed, but the Supreme Court opinion made it clear that Judge Prettyman’s narrow reading of the Act was improper.
The case laid the foundation for the Court’s later important public use cases, Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984) and Kelo v. City of New London (2005). Critics of recent occurrences of eminent domain uses trace what they view as property rights violations to this case.
Next Economics Case: Williamson v. Lee Optical (1955)
Previous Economics Case: Wickard v. Filburn (1942)
Next Case: Brown (2) v. Board of Education (1955)
Previous Case: Bolling v. Sharpe (1954)