Saturday, February 26, 2005

Kelo v. New London, Eminent Domain Abuse

There's an important Supreme Court case going on right now that you may have heard about, Kelo v. New London concerns a frightening, and increasingly threatening, aspect of government power: "Eminent Domain." A little background:

Back in 1981 Detroit found itself in a bit of pickle economically, and General Motors was willing to build a plant in a district called "Poletown." The city leaders looked at this and thought they saw a solution to their "problem" of economic development, so they brought out their eminent domain weaponry and gave General Motors a nice chunk of land in that district. Problem was, the people living on that land didn't take to kindly to being evicted by their elected officials. A legal battle ensued, culminating in a decision by the Michigan Supreme Court in favor of the city, and ultimately General Motors. About 1,400 homes and 140 businesses were swept away in the name of economic development.

Fast forward 19 years: an organization called the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) wants, through the city of New London, to evict another group of people (Susette Kelo among them), again in the name of "economic development," specifically for Pfizer (though why they need a boardwalk and more hotels is questionable). This time around though, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and arguments were presented on Tuesday the 22nd. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled last March in favor of the city and NLDC, using the Michigan "Poletown" case as justification. Ironically, just last July the Michigan Supreme Court reversed that case.

Unfortunately, these are hardly the only two cases of eminent domain abuse, it happens all over the country, but in all situations this procedure raises several legal and ethical issues:

To begin, the Bill of Rights states quite explicitly that "nor may private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." We could quibble all day over what constitutes "just compensation" (property value? moving costs? "pain and suffering"?), but it seems clear that private development does not qualify as public use (exception: unless of course, "Everyone has a share," See: Catch-22).

But beyond just legal definitions, what exactly is the use of expanding an area's economic power, if at the end of the day you've driven off all the workers/consumers? One might as well try to build a bird sanctuary by first burning down all the trees. New London (as well as Detroit) doesn't seem to realize this, to the detriment of themselves and all their citizens. Furthermore, these activities are a bastardization of private property rights, without which a market system cannot operate, let alone flourish as the proponents of eminent domain expound. Pfizer seems oddly unfazed in this whole affair, given that the sword the NLDC is swinging around so recklessly is very clearly "double-edged."

Of course these activities are usually the result of well-applied wealth and political clout, and it is unlikely that a company of Pfizer's substantial resources will find itself close to such a sword in the near future. With a little luck, the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Kelo and a firm precedent against this practice will be set. The reversal of the Poletown decision should factor into this as well but the battle is far from over. We encourage everyone to stay informed about this issue as it relates to their specific communities and others, for eminent domain is a power much better hidden, and much more dangerous, than those that normally draw ire from either the left or the right.

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