New York’s Eminent Domain Procedure Law (EDPL) provides that the Supreme Court shall have exclusive jurisdiction to determine all claims from the acquisition of real property and hear such claims without a jury or without referral to a referee or commissioners. EDPL § 501(B). If the property is acquired by the State, the claim will be litigated in the Court of Claims. EDPL § 501(A). All claims in the Court of Claims are tried by a Court of Claims Judge without a jury. In United States v 243.22 Acres of Land, 129 F2d 678 (2d Cir. Ct. 1942), Cert. den., 317 U.S. 698 (1942), the Court held that jury trials in Federal Court in New York State may properly be denied because there are no jury trials of condemnation cases in State Court. The Seventh Amendment does not compel the use of a jury except in the types of litigation in which jury trial were customary when the Amendment was adopted.
But perhaps it’s time to change this in the interest of awarding just compensation mandate by the Constitution. It is necessary to quote America’s leading expert on the Law of Eminent, Professor Gideon Kanner. In an article he wrote, “Our eminent right to a jury,” August 19, 2016, Professor Kanner wrote: It is a bedrock constitutional principle and a part of the civic ethos of our country, that trial by jury is enshrined in the Bill of Rights for good reason: It is treasured as a fundamental guarantee of Americans’ freedoms that interposes the judgment of the community as a shield between the citizen and government excesses. Why then, when it comes to eminent domain, trial by jury is suddenly disfavored by judges as if some sort of pesky impediment to good governance, is obscure. The purpose of the Bill of Rights was to protect the people from the government, not the other way around, and juries provide that protection in eminent domain cases as well as in others, as correctly noted by Justice William Douglas in U.S. v Reynolds, 397 U.S. 14, 23-24 (1940).
He added: Obviously, it is a tall order to ask the courts to reconsider a rule, even an erroneous one, that they have been repeating for over two centuries. But is seems to me that the intellectual integrity of the law, and a candid acknowledgment of historical truth are too important to let this legal dog lie.
A jury will help prevent an obvious bias towards government that is all too evident by the Courts. The jury trial works for every case imaginable, tort, contract, equity, criminal. What makes a condemnation case beyond the capabilities of a jury to render justice?
Most states provide for trial by jury. At last count, 47 out of 50. A jury trial will also enable a prompt and expeditious resolution of eminent domain claims. I am awaiting decisions on two cases that were tried two or three years ago. One trial took place of a period of a year and a half because the judge would only allocate a day or two every three months, or so.
It’s time to provide the proper process to determine just compensation, and that is a jury.