June 23, 2005

SCOTUS says cities can take your home -- and you can't do a bloody thing about it

The US Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision announced today that cities can seize property from private citizens and give it to private industry.

The decision was tied to a New London, CT case where the city wanted to seize an entire neighborhood of homes under eminent domain provisions, and hand that property over to a developer who would build an office, residential and retail complex supporting a new $300 million research facility of Pfizer Pharmaceutical. In their defense, the city claimed that the eminent domain clause of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution would apply here, as the project would increase tax revenues, create jobs and improve the local economy.

As for the people that lived there, in some cases for generations? The city said the heck with 'em. And five Supreme Court justices agreed with that.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said the case turned on the question of whether New London's development plan served a "public purpose." He added, "Without exception, our cases have defined that concept broadly, reflecting our longstanding policy of deference to legislative judgments in this field."

New London officials "were not confronted with the need to remove blight in the Fort Trumbull area, but their determination that the area was sufficiently distressed to justify a program of economic rejuvenation is entitled to our deference," Stevens wrote. "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 added that "because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment."

The larger ramifications of this were pointed out by minority opinions, filed by both Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor.
"Today the Court abandons this long-held, basic limitation on government power," O'Connor wrote. "Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded -- i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public -- in the process."

The effect of the decision, O'Connor said, "is to wash out any distinction between private and public use of property -- and thereby effectively to delete the words "for public use" from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment."

Bottom line? If you own any property, and the local municipality decides that someone else "deserves" or "needs" your property more than you do (i.e., the "other guy" can increase the tax base or provide jobs), then you're S.O.L. They get to take your land. And you don't have a damn thing to say about it.

So much for the concept of personal property rights. Thanks to this decision, you can just kiss that right -- which was one of those guaranteed by the Constitution itself, mind you -- away.

Posted by mhking at June 23, 2005 01:22 PM

Correction: Clarence Thomas was NOT part of the dissenting opinion:

(from the linked article) "Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion for the court's majority, which also included Rehnquist, Scalia, Souter and Thomas. Dissenting were Stevens, Breyer, Ginsburg and O'Connor."

Posted by: Odd Brian at June 23, 2005 02:17 PM


Thomas DID write his own dissent (as noted at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8331097/ and elsewhere)

Thomas filed a separate opinion to argue that seizing homes for private development, even with “just compensation,” is unconstitutional.

“The consequences of today’s decision are not difficult to predict, and promise to be harmful,” Thomas wrote. “So-called ’urban renewal’ programs provide some compensation for the properties they take, but no compensation is possible for the subjective value of these lands to the individuals displaced and the indignity inflicted.”

Posted by: Michael at June 23, 2005 02:35 PM

So, the government will decide if you or someone else uses the property based on how much revenue you or someone else can generate from that property. Isn't that sharecropping?

Posted by: Todd at June 23, 2005 09:01 PM

This may be the thing which finally galvinizes folks to some sort of action....be it referendum, massive turnouts to call for removing justices (along with a Senator whose last name begins with Durb and ends with in), and who knows what else. But short of that, what can be done...that doesn't come across as either too reactionary-by the powers that be, or casues a bunch of potential "Ruby Ridges" to happen as home owners start taking the law into their own hands. Or will we in the end be a nation of sheep after all.

Posted by: Guy S at June 23, 2005 09:26 PM

Well, thankfully I stand corrected. I'm glad to see that Thomas was in the dissent. I was getting my information from the link that you provided, which was apparently corrected this morning.

I was interested to see how the decision broke down along president appointed lines. Majority: 1-Ford, 1-Reagan, 1-Bush, 2-Clinton. Minority 2-Reagan, 2-Bush.

Posted by: Odd Brian at June 24, 2005 11:05 AM

As far as I can see from reading the decision, it doesn't limit property as only real estate, too.
This is very bad.

Posted by: Fausta at June 25, 2005 12:23 PM

This is an issue that should unite all principled liberals and conservatives, as well as any American who believes in the Constitution. The task at hand is to mobilize pressure for immediate state and local legislation regarding eminent domain to specificly exclude economic development or tax farming from the definition of public use.

Posted by: elgodosimp at June 26, 2005 10:27 AM
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