You Can’t Sue Us … We Had No Right to Do What We Did!
Tomorrow morning, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in a rather unusual case. Jim Roos graduated from Concordia Seminary in 1970 and eventually founded Sanctuary in the Ordinary, a unique sort of ministry that provides ultra-low-income housing for those who would otherwise have nowhere to go, and tries to teach tenants some of the basics about living as part of a neighborhood. Roos renovated a number of properties in the McRee Town neighborhood, which later came to be targeted for redevelopment by the city of St. Louis. When it became clear that the city intended to use eminent domain to tear down the buildings that Roos’ ministry was trying to use for good, he painted a huge sign on one of them calling for an end to eminent domain abuse.
As it turns out, the city and especially the Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) didn’t much care for the criticism. The government cited Roos for illegally displaying a sign without a permit. Even though his right to free speech means that the city had no proper authority to require Roos to seek their permission to express his opinion about eminent domain, Roos complied with the city’s directive and applied for a permit. The LCRA persuaded the city’s Building and Inspection (B&I) Division to deny the permit, because Roos had not first gotten the LCRA’s permission to file the application. When Roos then sought the LCRA’s permission to pursue a sign permit, the LCRA denied his request. With the help of the Institute for Justice, Roos sued to enforce his constitutional rights to free speech.
When the city saw that the lawsuit sought to hold the LCRA accountable for its role in denying Roos’ constitutional freedoms, officials argued that the court should not hold the LCRA accountable because it had no authority to deny the permit in the first place. In other words, the city argued (and, remarkably, the trial court agreed!) that Roos was not entitled to a judgment that the LCRA had acted unlawfully because … well … the LCRA had acted unlawfully.
It is important for all of us that the Eighth Circuit reverses the lower court’s decision. If judges refuse to punish (or even recognize) constitutional violations resulting from improper assertions of governmental authority, agencies such as the LCRA will be able to continue intimidating people without fear of reprisal. These agencies already bully too many people just by using the powers already given them under the law they surely should not be allowed to get away with making up new rules in order to exercise even more control over our lives.