It was ten years ago this month that the Supreme Court handed down the odious Kelo v. New London decision legitimizing the expansion of eminent domain powers to include the seizure of property for private interestswrites Benny Huang, who counts it among the court’s worst decisions.
Not as bad as Roe v. Wade, but pretty atrocious.
Eminent domain is a fancy phrase that means nothing more than the government taking private property from its owner and putting it to public use. Eminent domain is authorized under the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment which permits governments to seize property as long as the owner is paid “just compensation,” which has been traditionally interpreted to mean market value. In other words, the government has to pay but the owner can’t refuse to sell.
For more than two centuries, “public use” was understood to mean government use. If the state wants to build a highway it doesn’t need to convince every single property owner along its path to sell. As unjust as that may sound, the alternative is unworkable.
In the Kelo case, a group of private citizens sued the City of New London, Connecticut to avoid losing their homes to Pfizer, Inc., a private company that manufactures pharmaceuticals.
Wait a second, can they do that? Surely, eminent domain doesn’t permit private companies to take people’s homes. That was the issue before the court. The legal geniuses in robes decided that yes, private companies can take your property as long as they use the government as a middle man.
Here’s how it works: a private company decides that they want to raze a few city blocks to build a new office complex. First, they ask the inhabitants to sell. If the inhabitants want too much or refuse to sell at any price, the company bypasses them and goes to city hall instead. They convince the bureaucrats that their project is the answer to all their prayers, that it will result in a lot of jobs, and most importantly, tax revenue. A single multinational corporation will probably pay more in taxes than all of those working stiffs combined. It helps if the city condemns the property first, though that’s a formality and everyone knows that the property is only being condemned because a private company is salivating over the real estate. After seizing the property, the city sells it to the corporation.
That’s the reality of eminent domain in the twenty-first century. We can “thank” the purveyors of the “living, breathing” Constitution for this injustice. The Fifth Amendment, though thoroughly unambiguous, doesn’t mean the same thing today as it did in days gone by. When the Constitution can mean anything, it means nothing.
… Howard Dean … seemed unaware that it was the liberal wing of the court—Ginsburg, Souter, Breyer, Kennedy, and Stevens—who approved this monstrosity. The court’s liberals even seemed swayed by the city’s argument that more tax revenue was a public good in and of itself, and therefore seizing the property amounted to public use. While big business’s hands are not clean in this affair, it was the government, driven by its insatiable appetite for tax revenue, that yanked these people from their homes.
File it under ‘lessons learned’: the behemoth of government devours the little people first. Powerful people cut deals. These days, they don’t even have to resort to the proverbial “back room.” All business is conducted up front.
Pfizer never did build its complex in New London. The jobs and tax dollars never materialized. In 2009 it sold the property and left town, leaving a vacant lot where a tight-knit neighborhood once stood.