‘Welcome Vindication’ or ‘Liberty Is Lost’?

Published August 1, 2005

Newspapers, talk radio shows, and weblogs that track legal rulings were abuzz after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kelo v. New London, Connecticut. The day after the ruling, the New York Times defended the decision:

“The Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday that the economically troubled city of New London, Conn., can use its power of eminent domain to spur development was a welcome vindication of cities’ ability to act in the public interest,” the newspaper wrote.

The Chicago Tribune took a decidedly different view. “The majority advised property owners to urge their state legislatures to set limits on the power to take private property. That’s laughable advice. The Bill of Rights was crafted precisely to protect individuals from the power of the state. The court now advises individuals to go hat in hand to the state, to ask politely for protection from its considerable power.”

Minorities Concerned

Critics of the ruling contend middle- and lower-income homeowners and small business owners will be especially at risk of having their property seized and bulldozed to make way for new real estate projects, even if the properties have been well-maintained and improved by their owners.

In an amicus brief in the case, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and other groups wrote, “The history of eminent domain is rife with abuse specifically targeting minority neighborhoods. Indeed, the displacement of African-Americans and urban renewal projects were so intertwined that ‘urban renewal’ was often referred to as Negro removal.'”

Nonpartisan Movement Forming

John Tillman, president of Americans for Limited Government, which has been tracking eminent domain cases across the country, said the decision frightens him.

“This ruling gives more power to the people who have an insatiable desire to tax and spend,” Tillman said. “If government can make its decisions about private property based on what’s best for government revenues, liberty is lost.

“The Constitution establishes the rules, from the people, by which government may operate. The Supreme Court has changed those rules to favor the government over the people. If ever there was a decision that protected big business, in concert with government bureaucrats, this was it.”

However, Tillman said he takes some heart in the strong reaction against the ruling.

“One positive from this is the interesting alliances between traditional liberals, who like to look out for the little guy, and traditional conservatives and libertarians, who defend individual rights and property rights. I think we will see a grassroots movement on eminent domain.”

— Steve Stanek