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SCOTUS on Eminent Domain: Don’t Get Too Attached to Your Personal Property…the Government Might Need It

The legal principle of eminent domain has a long history and a strong case can be made for the government’s power to seize personal property in extraordinary circumstances. Imagine a seaside resort being seized for a vital coastal defense installation or a block of houses demolished to deter the spread of a wildfire. In more recent times, cities and states have seized neglected buildings and even entire slums in an effort to combat blight.

However, the Kelo v. New London decision handed down today by the absolute oligarchy extends this government power to an impermissible extent. The Fifth Amendment allows the government to take personal property for “public use.” The enduring issue that courts have been asked to answer turns on the definition of “public use,” and that definition has been growing ominously.

There are no invading armies or uncontrolled fires in Connecticut. New London is a small northeastern city with typical big economic issues. There is high unemployment and a shrinking population. Over the last decade, the state and city have tried to find ways to revitalize this area. This is a scenario that has played out countless times in this country. Justice Stevens goes on at length describing the brave, new utopia just aching to come into being in New London, if only the city could seize a few parcels of private land. He indicates that the question is whether or not the taking is “reasonable” to the city’s goals. But the better question is this: Is the city’s plan reasonable?

By its own admission, the city has been trying for ten years or more to revitalize the area with no success. There is strong evidence that Stevens and the majority should not be so optimistic that the plan will indeed result in “creating jobs, generating tax revenue, and helping to build momentum for the revitalization of downtown New London.” Any municipality in the nation would advocate these goals, but these same municipalities have a poor track record in bringing these effects about through grandiose development schemes.

The petitioners asked the court to rule definitively that economic development does not qualify as a public use. Though the majority is not interested, this would be the more reasonable position to take. Encouraging economic health and opportunity is indeed a basic government task, but it does not follow that private property can be seized for that purpose. What has been abandoned here is the fundamental understanding that personal property is the sole legitimate basis for economic health. The idea that prosperity can be brought about by central planning has been tried and found wanting. Socialism, I think they called it.

Also, the liberal worship of taxation is evident here. The Court comes dangerously close to supporting the idea, already circulating in lower courts, that the poor and disenfranchised have a constitutional right to tax money, and that states and cities, county councils and school boards have a duty to continue raising taxes to cover entitlements and ballooning budgets. The renegade brand of eminent domain legitimized today is simply taxation on steroids, accomplishing all at once the same middle class burden and stagnation that is inflicted slowly year after year under high tax rates and inefficient government.


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Comments (1)

This really is something. I know some conservatives (Ramesh at NRO) don't think it will hurt Republicans, and others (Jonathan Adler) have grave doubts about the use of eminent domain but aren't sure the feds should get involved in a state matter, but I think it's terrible.

When I lived in Richfield, MN a few years ago, there was terrible strife created because of the city's desire to declare some neighborhoods "blighted" simply so they could be claimed under ED and redeveloped for uses which would incresae the city's tax base. Never mind that many of these people had lived in their homes for many years and would not be able to find other housing at the same mortgage amount. Never mind that many of these homes were well taken care of. No, the only important thing was that the new Best Buy world headquarters had to be built.

To the extent that conservatives are identified with big business, this will hurt. However, it's not a political issue as much as it is a moral one. As my wife commented, Chesterton must be spinning in his grave.

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