Thursday, June 23, 2005

Hope Yen: Supreme Court Rules Cities May Seize Homes

(Courtesy of Melissa Purdue)

Supreme Court Rules Cities May Seize Homes
by Hope Yen

A divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that local governments may seize people's homes and businesses against their will for private development in a decision anxiously awaited in communities where economic growth often is at war with individual property rights.

The 5-4 ruling — assailed by dissenting Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as handing "disproportionate influence and power" to the well-heeled in America — was a defeat for Connecticut residents whose homes are slated for destruction to make room for an office complex. They had argued that cities have no right to take their land except for projects with a clear public use, such as roads or schools, or to revitalize blighted areas.

As a result, cities now have wide power to bulldoze residences for projects such as shopping malls and hotel complexes in order to generate tax revenue.

The case was one of six resolved by justices on Thursday. Among those still pending for the court, which next meets on Monday, is one testing the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commandments on government property.

Writing for the court's majority in Thursday's ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens said local officials, not federal judges, know best in deciding whether a development project will benefit the community. States are within their rights to pass additional laws restricting condemnations if residents are overly burdened, he said.

"The city has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including — but by no means limited to — new jobs and increased tax revenue," Stevens wrote.

Stevens was joined in his opinion by other members of the court's liberal wing — David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. The bloc typically has favored greater deference to cities, which historically have used the takings power for urban renewal projects that benefit the lower and middle class.

They were joined by Reagan appointee Justice Anthony Kennedy in rejecting the conservative principle of individual property rights. Critics had feared that would allow a small group of homeowners to stymie rebuilding efforts that benefit the city through added jobs and more tax revenue for social programs.

"It is not for the courts to oversee the choice of the boundary line nor to sit in review on the size of a particular project area," Stevens wrote.

O'Connor argued that cities should not have unlimited authority to uproot families, even if they are provided compensation, simply 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," 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."

Connecticut residents involved in the lawsuit expressed dismay and pledged to keep fighting.

"It's a little shocking to believe you can lose your home in this country," said resident Bill Von Winkle, who said he would refuse to leave his home, even if bulldozers showed up. "I won't be going anywhere. Not my house. This is definitely not the last word."

Scott Bullock, an attorney for the Institute for Justice representing the families, added: "A narrow majority of the court simply got the law wrong today and our Constitution and country will suffer as a result."

At issue was the scope of the Fifth Amendment, which allows governments to take private property through eminent domain if the land is for "public use."

Susette Kelo and several other homeowners in a working-class neighborhood in New London, Conn., filed suit after city officials announced plans to raze their homes for a riverfront hotel, health club and offices.

New London officials countered that the private development plans served a public purpose of boosting economic growth that outweighed the homeowners' property rights, even if the area wasn't blighted.

Connecticut state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, a former mayor and city council member who voted in favor of eminent domain, said the decision "means a lot for New London's future."

The lower courts had been divided on the issue, with many allowing a taking only if it eliminates blight.

Nationwide, more than 10,000 properties were threatened or condemned in recent years, according to the Institute for Justice, a Washington public interest law firm representing the New London homeowners.

New London, a town of less than 26,000, once was a center of the whaling industry and later became a manufacturing hub. More recently the city has suffered the kind of economic woes afflicting urban areas across the country, with losses of residents and jobs.

City officials envision a commercial development that would attract tourists to the Thames riverfront, complementing an adjoining Pfizer Corp. research center and a proposed Coast Guard museum.

New London was backed in its appeal by the National League of Cities, which argued that a city's eminent domain power was critical to spurring urban renewal with development projects such Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Kansas City's Kansas Speedway.

Under the ruling, residents still will be entitled to "just compensation" for their homes as provided under the Fifth Amendment. However, Kelo and the other homeowners had refused to move at any price, calling it an unjustified taking of their property.

The case is Kelo et al v. City of New London, 04-108.

On the Net:

The ruling in Kelo v. New London

Article Link


Susannity said...

just another way for the rich to get richer and the rest to get shafted imo.

Michael Benton said...

no doubt Susanne ... ruling for hotels against working class families? how low can we get?

Deleted said...

This is going to lead to speculative wildcat takings if it's allowed to stand. That's one way to keep the real estate bubble going. It will also be used punitively.

memsamechnun said...

Fascinating take, harry, on all three counts!

Just a little added sidebar filler. During the Clinton years Connecticut, like most states, businesses and people, had accumulated a tidy surplus. With it's small cut, my agency, Department of Environmental Protection, bought the toxic waste-laden "Fort Trumbul" from the Federal government, erected a $200,000 statue and made it into a hideous concrete park to which no one goes.

This is New London too.

Michael Benton said...


Michael Bennet's "Manufacturing the Ghetto" and Mike Davis' books seem even more relevant...

Artificially bolstering the bubble--yes, could be an impulse behind this... as for it being used as a punitive measure that was one of the first things that popped into my mind. What if you have a strong working class neighborhood that is protesting and organizing to protect their rights, challenging the city machine and making real changes?

Michael Benton said...


Thanks, more on Toxic Waste Sites and find out how your place ranks at Scorecard: The Pollution Information Site

et alia said...

Fucking disgusting.

What Harry said about the potential for punitive use. We've got a neighborhood here in Bklyn slated for a Frank Geary designed basketball stadium and a bunch of ugly office buildings. The plan doesn't call for any eminent domain seizures, but when this came down, neighborhood activists began to wonder....can you blame 'em?

Pour encourager les autres. Not me, and never me, but somebody, someday. It's coming to that.

Michael Benton said...

Et Alia,

Feets in the streets making noise is going to be the only thing that will make a difference.

I fear it is going to get very ugly...

Lexington where I live has a long history of eminent domain seizures, for the University of Kentucky, Applebee Stadium/Park (yeah, you know its important when its named for a restraunt chain), and Memorial Stadium... all of the neighborhoods that were displaced were working class, african-american families/neighborhoods.

Deleted said...


I'm fascinated by the measures people will take to prop up a familiar *reality*. No member of the top ranks in the political ruling class can be unaware of the overall economy's dependence on the housing bubble. The extent to which it sustains consumption is endlessly discussed in all the business papers.

It is possible for them to be unaware of just how poorly Eminent Domain takings serve both the putative public good and an actual public good. It is part of a system which produced their success, after all. No one likes to consider themselves beneficiaries of a wicked system, at least not to an extent that forces reevaluation and mandates a course of action.

There's no actual intention to wreak harm needed to explain how the decision was made, though my comment may suggest that there was. Step by step, the powerful people and their influential supporters rationalized this insanity as good.

A viable alternative would be elimination of Eminent Domain altogether. Where there is a public good to be served, a consensus decision by the parties standing to be displaced would suffice. Where consensus is not achievable, it's best that nothing be done. That would have the beneficial effect of forcing a reassessment of the projects themselves. It's okay for these things to take a long time.

One of the guiding principles of any enlightened system is that where innocents are harmed, there can be no good. There is utilitarian pragmatism, at best.

Anonymous said...

wowie... what are folks doing about this ruling? that is a bold faced dispicable ruling, that there is... i can't wrap my head around it... are these renters or owners who were defeated in court?

we (up north) have experienced a few occassions such as this, but rulings are made on a case by case basis (not setting overall precidents and introducing new policy en mass). city officials still have a super hard time bulldozing residences even for public projects such as road expansions et al. though admittedly, they bulldoze public spaces in a heartbeat for private developers (hospitals seem to be the most recent targets).

Michael Benton said...


I believe they were working class owners in the Supreme Court case. If they were renters they wouldn't of had much of a case to make it that far.

Anonymous said...

yes, i asked because we have seen situations like that here. where one or two owners on the block have rallied the occupants (renters) and all took their plea to court. of course, all the other owners were on the side-lines waiting for their dough and sitting on eviction notices. and, no, they didn't win (in each case) against the developers.