Debra J. Saunders

Americans who want to keep government out of the bedroom, beware. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that makes it too easy for the government to seize your bedroom -- and kitchen, parlor and dining room -- then hand your precious home over to a corporation.
 
The Fifth Amendment stipulates, "... nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Lawyers call it the Takings Clause.

 In its decision, the Supreme Court expanded the concept of "public use" to apply it not to a highway, or school, or railroad, but to economic development sanctioned by a government entity.

 The city of New London, Conn., found itself in economic doldrums. Redevelopment was supposed to be the bromide. State and local officials created the New London Development Corp. That unelected entity decided to increase tax revenues by pushing middle-class families out of their waterfront homes and using eminent domain -- the other E.D. -- to make way for a revitalization project, anchored around a Pfizer Inc. research facility.

 Some families in the redevelopment area agreed to be bought out. Susette Kelo and Wilhelmina Dery, who was born in her home in 1918, were among those New Londoners who balked.

 The city didn't contend there was any blight in the neighborhood to warrant government action. Why should they move out because Pfizer wanted in? In a 5-4 ruling on Kelo written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Big Bench answered the why question: Because the government says so.

 Connecticut law says economic development constitutes "public use." And that's that. If states want to write laws that stipulate otherwise, they can do so. But don't expect America's top court to hold land-use commissions to the same standards they save for police.

 As Justice Clarence Thomas quipped in a sharply worded dissent, "Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not."

 Another dissenter, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, noted that if governments can kick people out of their homes under the banner of economic development, "the specter of condemnation hangs over all property. 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."

 Thomas noted that when governments seize homes to enrich their own coffers, the poor and the black are likely to lose their homes.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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