Property-rights advocates condemned the Supreme Court’s split decision today
allowing a local government to seize a home or business against the owner’s
will for the purpose of private development.
“It’s a dark day for American homeowners,” said Dana Berliner, senior
attorney with the Institute for Justice,
which represented a group of Connecticut residents in the case.
“While most constitutional decisions affect a small number of people,
this decision undermines the rights of every American, except the most
politically connected,” Berliner said. “Every home, small business or church
would produce more taxes as a shopping center or office building. And
according to the court, that’s a good enough reason for eminent domain.”
The 5-4 ruling went against the owners of homes targeted for destruction
to make room for an office complex.
Susette Kelo was among several residents of New London, Conn., who sued
the city after officials announced plans to raze their homes for a
riverfront hotel, health club and offices.
“I was in this battle to save my home and, in the process, protect the
rights of working class homeowners throughout the country,” Kelso said. “I
am very disappointed that the court sided with powerful government and
business interests, but I will continue to fight to save my home and to
preserve the Constitution.”
The debate centered on the scope of the Fifth Amendment, which allows
governments to take private property through eminent domain if the land is
for “public use.”
Until now, that has been interpreted to mean projects such as roads,
schools and urban renewal. But New London officials argued that the private
development plans served a public purpose of boosting economic growth, even
though the area was not blighted.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing in dissent, said cities shouldn’t be
allowed to uproot a family in order to accommodate wealthy developers.
“Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party,
but the fallout from this decision will not be random,” O’Connor wrote. “The
beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate
influence and power in the political process, including large corporations
and development firms.”
O’Conner was joined in her opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist
and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said, “The city has
carefully formulated an economic development that it believes will provide
appreciable benefits to the community, including — but by no means limited
to — new jobs and increased tax revenue.”
He was joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader
Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Chip Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, said both the
majority and the dissent recognized that the action in this issue now turns
to state supreme courts where the public-use battle will be fought out under
“Today’s decision in no way binds those courts,” he said.
Mellor said his group will work to ensure the property owners in New
London keep their homes.
“This is a terrible precedent that must be overturned by this court, just
as bad state supreme court eminent domain decisions in Michigan and Illinois
were later overturned by those courts,” he said.
Another homeowner in the case, Mike Cristofaro, has owned property New
London for more than 30 years.
“I am astonished that the court would permit the government to throw out
my family from their home so that private developers can make more money,”
he said. “Although the court ruled against us, I am very proud of the fight
we waged for my family and for the rights of all Americans.”
The Institute for Justice says more than 10,000 private properties have
been threatened or condemned in recent years.
The neighborhood slated for destruction includes Victorian-era houses and
some small businesses that have remained in a family for several
The residents are entitled to “just compensation” for their homes under
the Fifth Amendment.