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US Supreme Court Rules on Property Seizures

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a major ruling Thursday on the power of the government to seize private property for economic development projects.

A sharply divided high court ruled by a vote of five to four that local governments do have the right to seize private property against the will of the owner if it leads to economic development that benefits the community.

The decision is expected to give local governments around the country more power to seize homes and businesses for economic growth projects such as shopping malls and hotels that would spur economic development and generate greater tax revenues.

The case stemmed from a dispute in New London, Connecticut, where some local homeowners had filed suit to block the city from seizing their property to build a riverfront hotel and other businesses.

Wesley Horton is an attorney for the city of New London. He says the Supreme Court ruling will be a boon to spurring economic development in cities around the country.

"Otherwise, all you can do is go into blighted areas, which means you are picking on the poor people, the minority people and this means that economic development can go where it is best to go," he said.

Bill Von Winkle is one of the New London homeowners fighting to block seizure of his property. He says he will not give up and will refuse to leave his home. "This is bad for the country. Any home, any business can be taken," he said.

Writing for the court majority, Justice John Paul Stevens supported the right of the city to seize property and said local officials know best about which economic development projects will benefit their community.

Writing for the minority side, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor countered that cities should not have unlimited power to uproot families and that the main beneficiaries of the ruling will be wealthy developers and corporations who back the development projects.

The decision takes into account the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment, which allows local governments to seize land for public use.

A public interest law firm representing the homeowners said that more than 10,000 properties have been threatened with government seizure over the past few years.