A divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that local governments may seize people's homes and businesses against their will for private development in a decision anxiously awaited in communities where economic growth often is at war with individual property rights.
The 5-4 ruling — assailed by dissenting Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as handing "disproportionate influence and power" to the well-heeled in America — was a defeat for Connecticut residents whose homes are slated for destruction to make room for an office complex. They had argued that cities have no right to take their land except for projects with a clear public use, such as roads or schools, or to revitalize blighted areas.
As a result, cities now have wide power to bulldoze residences for projects such as shopping malls and hotel complexes in order to generate tax revenue.
The case was one of six resolved by justices on Thursday. Among those still pending for the court, which next meets on Monday, is one testing the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commands on government property.
Writing for the court's majority in Thursday's ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens said local officials, not federal judges, know best in deciding whether a development project will benefit the community. States are within their rights to pass additional laws restricting condemnations if residents are overly burdened, he said.
"The city has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including — but by no means limited to — new jobs and increased tax revenue," Stevens wrote.
Stevens was joined in his opinion by other members of the court's liberal wing — David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. The bloc typically has favored greater deference to cities, which historically have used the takings power for urban renewal projects that benefit the lower and middle class.
They were joined by Reagan appointee Justice Anthony Kennedy in rejecting the conservative principle of individual property rights. Critics had feared that would allow a small group of homeowners to stymie rebuilding efforts that benefit the city through added jobs and more tax revenue for social programs.
"It is not for the courts to oversee the choice of the boundary line nor to sit in review on the size of a particular project area," Stevens wrote.
O'Connor argued that cities should not have unlimited authority to uproot families, even if they are provided compensation, simply to accommodate wealthy developers.
I've been aware of this Kelo matter for a while, and know that it's been painted as a rich versus poor scenario. I never believed it to be such, and the way in which the decision played out shows that my sense about this was correct. If it had been rich developers versus poor homeowners, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer would have sided with the poor homeowners against the evil rich developers.
What this case is really about is limited versus unlimited government power. In this regard, it's entirely logical for Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer to side with a civic government that promises that it has just a marvelous idea to make the City better. The thing is that we know, from example, after example, after example, that politicians who meddle in economic development usually get it wrong. If people want to develop because the market makes it worth their while, well, that's just great. But when the government gets behind the effort, it bogs down into corruption and ineffectiveness.
Sor I'm not surprised by how this case played out, but I am disgusted, because I believe that our governments, Federal, State and local already have more than enough power to make social and economic mischief, without having this blank check handed to them.