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.
"It's desperately hard to believe that in this country you can lose your home to private developers," New London homeowner Bill Von Winkle told The New York Times after the ruling. "It's basically corporate theft." But it's corporate theft that will enrich New London, so Von Winkle's home could become Pfizer's castle.
The libertarian-learning Institute of Justice, which represented Kelo, Von Winkle and their neighbors, held a press conference Wednesday to announce a new effort to fight back, as it champions the thousands of homeowners it believes are the targets of overreaching eminent domain. The campaign's name: Hands Off My Home.
Another victim of this government-run-amok trend, Denise Hoagland, who owns a home on the Jersey shore, told reporters: "Our homes are not blighted. This can happen to you." Institute for Justice spokesman John Kramer noted governments' appetite for seizing waterfront homes and figured their philosophy must be, "The poor don't deserve a view."
The Institute for Justice is well aware of the fact that both liberals and conservatives are appalled at the Kelo v. New London ruling. San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told me he was "fearful of" the ruling, as it may adversely affect "people who are not able to defend themselves." Meanwhile, Thomas' dissenting opinion addresses the inequities of a policy that falls hardest on "the least politically powerful'' -- that is, owners of lower-end homes.
Institute for Justice attorney Dana Berliner argued that New London could have had its development project and still accommodated the homeowners.
New London, she noted, "doesn't need these homes." But the New London Development Corp. didn't want these older homes in its tony project. So the homes must go.
On July 5, protesters will ask the New London City Council to spare the homes of Kelo, Dery and their co-litigants. New London should comply. Why? The New London Development Corp. wants to seize these homes for the worst reason of all: because it can.
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