Bad laws in our nation ruled by law: Kelo (taking private property)

9. Kelo v. City of New London (2005): Taking land from one private party to give it to another is a valid public use under the Takings Clause, the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo. The decision allowed New London to condemn Susette Kelo’s land and transfer it to a private developer as part of a “comprehensive redevelopment plan.”

I remember the furor when this decision came down. Since I knew virtually nothing about public domain stuff and had no feelings about whether government taking private property (government does pay the owner, I think at market value prices), I read the news fairly carefully. (What, you thought I was going to say I didn’t know enough to muster up interest in knowing more?)

Wikipedia has a good, well-written entry on this case, which had an unusual grouping of supporters for the named plaintiff, Susette Kelo. She was represented by a libertarian law firm, but amicus briefs were filed by, among others, the NAACP and the ACLU. Don’t like libertarians. Love NAACP and ACLU. So…hey.

I’m not sure why Casey Sullivan, the lawyer who compiled the 13 worst Supreme Court decisions ever, from which I’m making up this series, puts Kelo at number 9. Especially when you see what comes after this one (hint: Bush v Gore, for instance).

A couple of interesting paragraphs from Wikipedia. The bolded sentences are the most compelling argument against this decision. “Compelling,” meaning, it rouses my feelings and makes me pretty mad and sympathetic to the plaintiffs:

Kelo was the first major eminent domain case heard at the Supreme Court since 1984. In that time, states and municipalities had slowly extended their use of eminent domain, frequently to include economic development purposes. In the Kelo case, Connecticut had a statute allowing eminent domain for “economic development” even in the absence of blight. There was also an additional twist in that the development corporation was ostensibly a private entity; thus the plaintiffs argued that it was not constitutional for the government to take private property from one individual or corporation and give it to another, if the government was simply doing so because the repossession would put the property to a use that would generate higher tax revenue.

Kelo became the focus of vigorous discussion and attracted numerous supporters on both sides. Some 40 amicus curiae briefs were filed in the case, 25 on behalf of the petitioners.[6] Susette Kelo’s supporters ranged from the libertarian Institute for Justice (the lead attorneys on the case) to the NAACP, AARP, the late Martin Luther King‘s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and South Jersey Legal Services. The latter groups signed an amicus brief arguing that eminent domain has often been used against politically weak communities with high concentrations of minorities and elderly.

The punch-in-the-gut lines:

In spite of repeated efforts, the redeveloper (who stood to get a 91-acre (370,000 m2) waterfront tract of land for $1 per year) was unable to obtain financing, and the redevelopment project was abandoned. As of the beginning of 2010, the original Kelo property was a vacant lot, generating no tax revenue for the city.[2] In the aftermath of 2011’s Hurricane Irene, the now-closed New London redevelopment area was turned into a dump for storm debris such as tree branches and other vegetation.[13] As of February 2014, it was still vacant.[14][15]

Pfizer, whose employees were supposed to be the clientele of the Fort Trumbull redevelopment project, completed its merger with Wyeth, resulting in a consolidation of research facilities of the two companies. Pfizer chose to retain the Groton campus on the east side of the Thames River, closing its New London facility in late 2010 with a loss of over 1000 jobs. That coincided with the expiration of tax breaks on the New London site that would have increased Pfizer’s property tax bill by almost 400 percent.[16][17]

After the Pfizer announcement, the San Francisco Chronicle, on Nov 2009, in its lead editorial called the Kelo decision infamous:

The well-laid plans of redevelopers, however, did not pan out. The land where Susette Kelo’s little pink house once stood remains undeveloped. The proposed hotel-retail-condo “urban village” has not been built. And earlier this month, Pfizer Inc. announced that it is closing the $350 million research center in New London that was the anchor for the New London redevelopment plan, and will be relocating some 1,500 jobs.[18]

The Chronicle editorial quoted from The New York Times:

“They stole our home for economic development,” ousted homeowner Michael Cristofaro told the New York Times. “It was all for Pfizer, and now they get up and walk away.”[18]

The final cost to the city and state for the purchase and bulldozing of the formerly privately held property was $78 million.[19] The promised 3,169 new jobs and $1.2 million a year in tax revenues had not materialized. As of 2014 the area remains an empty lot.[20]

So, the city grabbed private property, turned it over to corporations–and you know how I love corporations–who did nothing whatsoever. If the property was considered a blight before the seizure, what the fuck is it now?

OK, I guess this did get me mad enough to feel it’s a rotten SCOTUS decision. But still not as rotten as Bush v. Gore.

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