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Sotomayor's views on property rights cause concern

She was part of an appeals-court panel in 2006 that favored a private developer with the authority to seize land by eminent domain.

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Ralph St. John is well into his 70s, but his stocky arms show that he is a man accustomed to hard labor. In Willets Point in the New York borough of Queens, he founded a general contracting company 36 years ago. He hoped to leave it to his son.

Now, however, Mr. St. John's business is one of 250 in an industrial zone that New York City has slated for redevelopment using eminent domain.

"I can't develop my property. I can't sell it.... Would you want to buy it when you know the city wants to take it away?" he asks.

With the Senate's expected confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, many small-business owners are fearful that the future court will make it that much easier for powerful developers to evict them for any reason.

Why would Judge Sotomayor make a difference? At issue is a precedent that property-rights experts say Sotomayor helped set in 2006 in a case between a private developer empowered by eminent domain and a small-business owner like St. John.

"Sotomayor will probably be on the court for 20 to 30 years," says Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.

Currently, there are nine eminent-domain cases with potential constitutional implications being litigated in state courts, according to the Institute for Justice, a law firm based in Arlington, Va., whose focus includes private-property rights. Somin, who testified at last week's confirmation hearings, and other legal experts worry that should any of these nine cases come before the Supreme Court within the next five to 10 years, small-property owners will lose their last vestige of protection.


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