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Supreme Court Rules Local Governments Can Seize Private Land

  • Diane Orson

In one of its final decision's of the term, the United States Supreme Court ruled that local governments may seize people's private property without their consent, for use in public projects. Seven families in the working-class neighborhood known as "Fort Trumbull" in New London, Connecticut, lost their fight to save their homes. But opponents of the decision say their legal struggle is not over.

"I'm not really interested in leaving," says Susette Kelo, who has refused to move out of her pink Victorian cottage on the Thames River. "And if I have to go, I'm going to make it as difficult as possible for whoever has to make me go."

New London officials have argued they must clear Fort Trumbull to attract development and bring in sorely needed tax dollars. Most residents agreed to sell their homes. Their properties were demolished when wrecking crews arrived 4 years ago. But Ms. Kelo and six of her neighbors refused.

Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, is representing the homeowners. He and other critics say the June 23rd Supreme Court ruling has opened the floodgates to what could be a wave of "eminent domain abuse " across the country.

"Hours after the Kelo decision," Mr. Bullock notes, "officials in Freeport, Texas, for instance, began legal filings to seize some waterfront businesses -- they're actually two seafood companies -- to make way for an $8 million private boat marina."

According to Mr. Bullock, that's only one of more than a dozen cases of private property seizure across the United States that began moving forward after the ruling. He says opposition to the decision in the U.S. Congress has come from across the political spectrum

"Hours after the Supreme Court decision, 2 people rushed to the floor of Congress," Mr. Bullock says, "Senator John Cornyn, a conservative Republican from Texas, who denounced the decision. And in the House, Maxine Waters, a liberal Democrat from inner city Los Angeles was also on the floor of the House of Representatives saying that something had to be done about it."

In a study released last year, the Institute for Justice reported more than 10,000 instances of threatened or actual property condemnations for private development from 1998-2002. Despite those numbers, property owners shouldn't worry about municipalities randomly grabbing up their homes, says Attorney Wesley Horton, who argued the eminent domain case on behalf of the city of New London.

"It's not like, as some of the opponents have said, … everybody's land is now in danger anywhere," Mr. Horton says. "The fact is, complying with what New London did is a lot of work… Putting together a comprehensive plan. It's very expensive. It's going to make doing this kind of thing a last resort."

One of the principal beneficiaries of the Supreme Court ruling is the New London Development Corporation, a private entity authorized to redevelop Fort Trumbull. Company attorney Ed O'Connell says the ruling affirms that when local officials in ailing municipalities create well-thought-out plans, then they, not the courts, have the right to decide what's in a community's best interest.

"The people who approved the plan were very aware of the fact that some people might lose their homes," he says. "It was not an easy decision by the local officials. But those people, the members of the New London City Council, had to keep in mind the general welfare of the entire community, not just the individual homeowners."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1950s that seizing slum property for a public purpose is constitutional, and New London officials argue the same principle applies here. They say, though not a slum, the neighborhood was in decline. When pharmaceutical giant Pfizer decided to build its global research facility adjacent to Fort Trumbull, officials saw a unique opportunity to move New London out of an economically "distressed" situation. Their plan calls for clearing homes to make way for a new hotel, high-end condos and office buildings.

But for now, the old neighborhood remains, and Susette Kelo has her supporters. "Most people are really disgusted with the way the decision came down," she says, adding that her phone hasn't stopped ringing since the Supreme Court ruling was announced. "People are calling to offer sympathy and support. And they're all calling and saying that when they come to take you, we will all be there. We're all going to come."

The Institute for Justice has launched a national campaign called "Hands Off My Home" that will pursue litigation in state courts to further protect private property rights. Attorneys for the Connecticut homeowners are expected to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling, but such requests are rarely granted. New London attorneys say once that appeals process is completed, the Fort Trumbull homes could be condemned September.

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