Were you aware that you live in a country that can seize your private property if it deems it appropriate? You may have been. You may even sympathize with the government in cases where houses must be sacrificed for road expansion or a new school. What about homes seized and families being evicted so that boutiques can be erected? Luxury condominiums?
Unfortunately, that kind of seizure – dimly alluded to in the Constitution – has been upheld, and indeed expanded, by 2005’s landmark Supreme Court case Kelo v. City of New London. A 5-4 court supported the city in condemning the homes of fifteen families so that a developer could execute plans to erect a Ritz-Carlton and some upscale condos.
Partisan Politics Pop Quiz: What political party would likely favor the interests of big business and corporate elites over the plight of the middle-class family?
The more conservative Republicans, you say? Wrong. It was actually the court’s more liberal wing that interpreted the Fifth Amendment’s criteria for government confiscation of private property – that it be coupled with just compensation and for the public good – to mean some compensation and greater tax revenues. This injustice is termed eminent domain. It means that, in the pursuit of the “common good” which could be, say, a strip mall, the government is lawfully able to condemn your property or provide you with what it deems the value of your property and demand that you vacate the – your – premises.
Although long in existence, it is only in recent years that interpretations of “public use” have broadened so widely as to include the transfer of one American’s land to another American so long as the latter holds the promise of upping government revenues. The Kelo decision asserted that the potential for greater tax revenues by a different private use is sufficient to condemn the private property of individuals.
Just compensation? Hardly. The “market” value on a condemned home is hardly fair, nor does it even attempt to compensate for sentimental attachment or the emotional upheaval moving creates. The value of a business’ assets cannot estimate the value of the clientele the business has built at that location, nor the cost of relocation, finding and training new employees, and re-establishing itself elsewhere.
Further, the Institute for Justice, the firm that defended the evicted residents in Kelo, found more than 50,000 documented cases where the threat of eminent domain was used by cities to ease “negotiations” with homeowners where development was planned. The sanctity of private property – an institution whose sanctity is uniquely American and that was devoted the greatest Constitutional protections – is now vulnerable to a very real threat. The Kelo case seriously undermined the constitutional protections that property-owners once had against the greedy eyes of government.
Although it is not impossible to understand the albeit loose connection between the local government profiting and the pursuit of the public good, the connection is far too simplistic and idealistic to justify the kind of development that has been okayed be the Highest Court in the Land.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in her statement of dissent, perfectly articulated the obvious and dangerous problem with the precedent her court set last February: “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.”
The danger is in the limits of eminent domain, in that it does not have many. In the past year alone, according to the Institute for Justice, there have been more than 6000 properties threatened or taken with eminent domain for private development. Kelo only emboldened developers to proceed with existing projects and create new ones now assured of the city’s cooperation.
Since the court’s decision two Junes ago, 30 states have passed legislation placing constraints on the use of eminent domain. Unfortunately, despite such legislation appearing on November’s ballot, California was not such a state.