What was SCOTUS thinking?
Today, they handed down a 5-4 decision in the case of Kelo v. City of New London, No. 04-108. Kelo had sued New London to block the city from condemning her home and taking it through eminent domain. Why were they taking it? To put businesses in its place. New London felt that the businesses would provide more income to the city, in the form of higher tax receipts.
Eminent domain is usually used to take property for the construction of streets, roads, city utilities or public safety facilities, or any other structure that serves the greater public good. In this case, the greater public good is supposed to be economic revival for the city.
Years ago, New London was a whaling city, but with the demise of the industry, so went the city. The city wants to take some house to go forward with a revitalization project.
Justice O’Conner wrote a stinging rebuke in her dissent:
“The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
“Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private property, but the fallout from this decision will not be random,” she wrote. “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.
“As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.”
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority decision, saying that just as government has the constitutional power of eminent domain to acquire private property to clear slums or to build roads, bridges, airports and other facilities to benefit the public, it can sometimes do so for private developers if the latters’ projects also serve a public good. He went on to say, “Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted governmental function, and there is no principled way of distinguishing it from the other public purposes the court has recognized.”
I noted in one story that according to the Institute for Justice, more than 10,000 properties were threatened or condemned in recent years nationwide.
The majority noted that property owners are still entitled to “just compensation” in such cases, and I expect more court cases will come up regarding how compensation is ruled to be just.
Glenn Reynolds talks this decision up over at Slate. I really like the title. And he’s right.