WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Constitution, properly construed by a vigilant Supreme Court, prevents untrammeled power, which is the definition of despotism. But the human propensity for abusing power -- a propensity the Constitution's unsentimental framers understood and tried to shackle with prudent language -- is perennial. There always are people trying to carve crevices in constitutional terminology to allow scope for despotism. Such carving is occurring in Connecticut.
Soon -- perhaps on the first Monday in October -- the court will announce whether it will hear an appeal against a 4-3 ruling last March by Connecticut's Supreme Court. That ruling effectively repeals a crucial portion of the Bill of Rights. If you think the term ``despotism'' exaggerates what this repeal permits, consider the life-shattering power wielded by the government of New London, Conn.
That city, like many cities, needs more revenues. To enhance the Pfizer pharmaceutical company's $270 million research facility, it empowered a private entity, the New London Development Corporation, to exercise the power of eminent domain to condemn most of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood along the Thames River. The aim is to make space for upscale condominiums, a luxury hotel and private offices that would yield the city more tax revenues than can be extracted from the neighborhood's middle-class homeowners.
The question is: Does the Constitution empower governments to seize a person's most precious property -- a home, a business -- and give it to more wealthy interests so that the government can reap, in taxes, ancillary benefits of that wealth? Connecticut's court says yes, which turns the Fifth Amendment from a protection of the individual against overbearing government into a license for government to coerce individuals on behalf of society's strongest interests. Henceforth, what home or business will be safe from grasping governments pursuing their own convenience?
But the Fifth Amendment says, inter alia: ``nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation'' (emphasis added). Every state constitution also stipulates takings only for ``public use.'' The framers of the Bill of Rights used language carefully; clearly they intended the adjective ``public'' to restrict government takings to uses that are directly owned or primarily used by the general public, such as roads, bridges or public buildings.
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