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Opening Arguments

Kelo revisited

Remember that loathsome, detestable, outrageous, unconscionable 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court in the 2005 Kelo v. City of New London case? Let me refresh your memory:

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that the city of New London and a nonprofit quasi-public entity that the city had set up, then called the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), were entitled to seize, in a process known as eminent domain, the homes and businesses of Kelo, the Cristofaros, and five other nearby property owners in the name of “economic development” that would generate “new jobs and increased revenue,” in the words of since-retired Justice John Paul Stevens, author of the majority opinion.

That is, the city and the NLDC were entitled to condemn and then bulldoze people’s homes solely in order to have something else built on the land that would produce higher property taxes—such as the office buildings, luxury condos, five-star hotel, spacious conference center, a “river walk” to a brand-new marina, and high-end retail stores that were part of an elaborate “economic development” plan for Fort Trumbull that the NLDC had launched in 1997. The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment bars governments from taking private property unless the taking is for a “public use.” Historically “public use,” as courts had interpreted it, meant a road, a bridge, a public school, or some other government structure. But in the Kelo decision, the High Court majority declared that “economic development” that would involve using eminent domain to transfer the property of one private owner to a different but more economically ambitious private owner—such as a hotel—qualified as a public use just as much as, say, a new city library.

And guess what? After all but destroying the concept of private property with the support of five Supreme Court justices, the geniuses in New London still have not done anything with the property:

During the five years since Pfizer left New London, the city has placed its hopes in two more grandiose plans for Fort Trumbull and its environs that never materialized, and it may be poised to embark on still another. The story of the Kelo case is in part the story of a city so desperate, so economically beleaguered, that it was willing to try anything to bring a few more residents, a few more revenue dollars into its boundaries.

The article contains a good review of what's happend post-Kelo, and it's definitely a mixed bag. There was nationwide outrage that spanned the political spectrum, and more than 40 states passed laws that banned or restricted the use of eminent domain for the purpose of economic rejuvenation. But the practice, thanks to the Supreme Court's imprimatur, is still very much alive and well. Consider New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's taking and $2 billion destruction of well-maintained condominiums to make way for a massive project with 16 high-rise buildings.

I know it's an article of faith for some people that property rights aren't as important as civil rights or human rights or whatevery you want to call them. But they are, and on my more contrarian days I'd argue that they're more important. Being able to keep and profit by the sweat of our labor is the foundation of our whole system of giovernment as servant rather than master. If the government can just take whatever it wants for whatever reason it wants, we are completely at its mercy. If it can take our property, it can take everything.