J is for Justice

August 23rd, 2007

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“Justice” implies the execution of public policy through due process of law and in accord with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In the American system of justice, the ultimate arbiter is the U.S. Supreme Court.

Undoubtedly the most significant Supreme Court decision of the 19th century for planning was Munn v. Illinois, decided in 1877. Ira Munn, a Chicago grain warehouse owner, challenged the State of Illinois’ setting of maximum rates for the storage of grain. Munn argued that the law deprived him of his property rights in violation of the 14th Amendment. In finding in favor of Illinois, the Court, however, ruled that:

“When one devotes his property to a use in which the public has an interest, he, in effect, grants to the public an interest in that use, and must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good, to the extent of the interest he has thus created.”

This ruling provided the legal foundation for all land-use and zoning controls that followed. It answered the query still heard in public meetings throughout the country, “What right does the government have to tell me what I can do with my property!”

Clearly, the Supreme Court decision of the 20th century that had the greatest impact on planned community development was the 1926 Euclid v. Ambler ruling. In Euclid, the Court supported comprehensive zoning -– the public control of land uses, heights of buildings, and setbacks and yards all in a single ordinance and for the entire area of jurisdiction. This ruling opened the door for communities across the country to engage in zoning and use it as the primary tool for plan implementation.

The term “justice,” however, involves more than just an examination of whether an action is Constitutional. It also involves consideration of whether an action is fair.

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