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Constitution Day Discussion: Can the Government Seize Land for Public Purpose?
September 12, 2005
Kelo v. City of New London (2005)
By Keith Boeckelman, Political Science
In this case the Supreme Court gave municipalities broad leeway in using eminent domain. This power allows governments to seize land for a public purpose. The question before the court was whether appropriating land through eminent domain and turning it over to a private developer violates the Fifth Amendments prohibition on unlawful taking.
The case pitted the City of New London, CT, which condemned several houses to clear land for a privately-funded redevelopment initiative, against seven families trying to protect their homes. The proposed project included a research facility for the Pfizer Pharmaceutical company, as well as hotels, offices, and a conference center. Homeowners argued that this seizure did not constitute a public use for their property. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled for the city, holding that economic development is a long-accepted function of government. Furthermore, the decision authorizes localities to determine what constitutes a public purpose, even if it means turning property over to private developers.
The decision has engendered controversy more typical of suspects rights or abortion cases. In its wake, the House of Representatives voted 365-33 to deplore the ruling. Separate legislation is pending in Congress to restrict the power of eminent domain to specifically public uses. Several states are also considering limiting eminent domain as it applies to seizing individual homes. One California-based group even suggested condemning the New Hampshire home of Justice David Souter in order to build a hotel.
The reaction to the decision may not be a complete surprise to the high court. Justice John Paul Stevens, author of the majority opinion, noted that although the Constitution allows municipalities a great deal of leeway in using eminent domain, there is no reason that legislative bodies cant change the law.
Further information: Kelo v. City of New London (http://www.oyez.org/oyez/resource/case/1799/)
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