Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Kelo vs. New London that local governments may seize people's homes and businesses for private development, declaring that it was a "public use" within the scope of the 5th Amendment of the Constitution.
In Kelo, the city of New London, CT sought to use eminent domain in order to seize the homes and business in its Fort Trumbull neighborhood, then turn the land over to a private developer. The developer was to construct a hotel, condos, a health club, and private offices to enhance Pfizer Corporation's plant adjacent to the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. The justification for this: economic redevelopment. In other words, the city would make more in taxes if it could take the property away from homeowners and give it to a large corporation. (The Institute of Justice has excellent information and background on the case.)
I was hoping that the Supreme Court would place some limit on the ability of local governments to condemn property for any reason whatsoever. The decision is a disappointing one, but not totally unexpected - eminent domain seizures like the one in Kelo have been occurring for years.
Who really owns their own home any more, when the government can take your property away from you if they think it would be put to better use (i.e. generate more tax dollars) by giving it to a business or commercial developer? Who's house couldn't be put to "better use" as a Wal-Mart, Costco, office building, sports stadium, etc.?
The government's eminent domain power derives from this clause of the 5th Amendment:
...nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
The question is (and was, in Kelo), what is a "public use"? Courts have repeatedly broadened the definition of "public use" to include "public purpose", "public benefit", "public interest", "public welfare", etc., so that any goal a government comes up with still falls within the 5th Amendment's "public use" clause.
This isn't a game that just the courts can play. Replace "public use" with whatever phrase you'd like "public use" to mean:
...nor shall private property be taken for ___, without just compensation.
My current favorite: "little pink ponies"
The next battles on this issue most likely will have to be waged in state legislatures. If people want the use eminent domain restricted, it will take changes in state laws to do so. (I'm not holding my breath on that one.)
My prior posts on eminent domain:
- May 2003 - Eminent Domain - An Education For Me
- Aug 2004 - Michigan overturns landmark eminent domain decision
Many distinguished webloggers have noted this decision and what it means for private property rights:
SCOTUSblog (excellent discussion)