Property-rights advocates condemned the Supreme Court’s split decision yesterday allowing a local government to seize a home or business against the owner’s will for the purpose of private development.
The 5-4 ruling went against the owners of New London, Conn., homes targeted for destruction to make room for an office complex.
The American Conservative Union, the nation’s oldest and largest conservative grass-roots organization, noted many of the affected citizens have deep roots in their community, including a married couple in their 80s who have lived in the same home for more than 50 years.
“It is outrageous to think that the government can take away your home any time it wants to build a shopping mall,” said ACU Chairman David Keene. “[The] Supreme Court ruling is a slap in the face to property owners everywhere.”
Keene believes “liberal, activist judges will continue to violate the rights of individuals in favor of big government and special interests.”
“To help protect property rights, Americans must push for a fair, originalist judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court when the next vacancy arises,” he said.
Susette Kelo was among several residents 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.
“It’s a dark day for American homeowners,” said Dana Berliner, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represented the 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.”
California state Sen. Tom McClintock, who ran for governor against Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the Supreme Court “broke the social compact by striking down one of Americans’ most fundamental rights.”
“Their decision nullifies the Constitution’s Public Use Clause and opens an era when the rich and powerful may use government to seize the property of ordinary citizens for private gain,” he said. “The responsibility now falls on the various states to reassert and restore the property rights of their citizens.”
McClintock announced he plans to introduce an amendment to the California Constitution to restore the original meaning of the property protections in the Bill of Rights.
“This amendment will require that the government must either own the property it seizes through eminent domain or guarantee the public the legal right to use the property,” he said. “In addition, it will require that such property must be restored to the original owner or his rightful successor, if the government ceases to use it for the purpose of the eminent domain action.”
Writing in dissent of yesterday’s decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor 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.
The American Family Association noted Justice Clarence Thomas’ addition to O’Conner’s dissent: “If such ‘economic development’ takings are for a ‘public use,’ any taking is, and the Court has erased the Public Use Clause from our Constitution.”
Stephen Crampton, chief counsel for the AFA Center for Law & Policy, said America’s founders “held that government was instituted to protect property as much as persons, but today’s high court no longer respects private property.”
“There is a world of difference between taking private property for a legitimate public use, such as the building of a road, and some private developer’s get-rich-quick scheme,” he said. “In effect, the Supreme Court has written over city hall: ‘The government giveth, and the government taketh away.’”
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 state constitutions.
“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.