As anniversaries go, this one might not be up there on your list of memorable dates, but it should be. One year ago this week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that someday may affect your life in a devastating way: Kelo v. City of New London.
The case involved eminent domain -- the power of the government to seize private property, ostensibly for public use. I say ostensibly because the Court's 5-4 decision significantly expanded the power of local governments to take whatever homes, businesses, even farms from private parties and give them to other private parties to build offices, luxury condos and hotels -- or pretty much whatever else the new owners (or in some cases leaseholders) choose to do with the property.
Although the home and business owners whose property is taken receive compensation, it is often well below true market value because they have no choice in whether to sell once the government has exercised eminent domain. While eminent domain makes sense when it is used to clear the way for such things as railroads or utilities, it's hard to see how the "public use" requirement embodied in the Fifth Amendment is satisfied when, as former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted in her dissent, the government is simply replacing a Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton.
The Court's decision in Kelo sparked considerable controversy and may be the one recent public policy debate that united many conservatives and liberals. Conservatives generally don't like government interfering in private transactions anyway, and the thought that a city or county could decide to condemn otherwise sound property in order to increase tax revenue by replacing it with a more valuable property strikes many conservatives as a good example of the rapacious appetite of Big Government.
Liberals, on the other hand, see this as government choosing the wealthy over the poor and middle class, Big Business triumphing over the Common Man, whites displacing blacks and other minorities. Ironically, though, most of the Supreme Court justices who sided with New London, Conn., in allowing the city to condemn 15 homes in a waterfront neighborhood in order to allow a developer to build a luxury hotel, condos and office buildings were from the liberal wing of the Court. Former Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas joined O'Connor in dissenting from their more liberal peers, Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer, with Justice Kennedy, often a swing vote, joining the liberals this time. One of my liberal friends wrote me the day the decision was handed down both amused and confused that she found herself on the same side of the argument with Justice Thomas instead of Justice Ginsburg.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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