Eminent Domain For Sale

In June of 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in the case: Kelo v. the City of New London, CT. I will always remember the moment I learned of the decision. It was truly a landmark moment in the battle for freedom and equality. Lead plaintiff, Susette Kelo sued the city of New London, Conn. for abusing the power of eminent domain. For those not familiar, eminent domain has historically given government the right to seize privately owned property so long as the owner was justly compensated and the seizure of the property was deemed as benefiting the public good, or “for public use.” This typically includes roads, bridges, dams, or utility stations. The decision in the Kelo case intrinsically altered those restrictive principles in several different ways.

First, let’s go over the background. The city of New London, under the guise of the New London Development Corporation, planned a development project that included hotels, retail stores, condos, and office buildings. The project, along with a 10-year, 80-percent tax break, was meant to lure the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, into building a $300 million research facility in New London. In order to continue with the development project, the city and its counterpart development corporation would need to seize several privately owned properties, including the one owned by nurse and mother of five, Susette Kelo. Kelo decided to fight the plan that would have her kicked out of her house in the name of eminent domain.

The city argued that it was in the public’s interest that the project move forward, seizure of private property and all. Why not? It would mean both temporary and permanent jobs, increased property value, increased tax revenue, and the big fish, having a company the size of Pfizer as a new neighbor. The courts in both Connecticut and Washington agreed.

This decision forever changed the way we understand eminent domain and its previously held restrictions. The “public good” or “public use” was now extended to include the economic development of land. More importantly, it extended a right intended for limited use by government and seldom abused by government, to corporations or even wealthy individuals. All they would have to do is convince the local officials that their plans for the property are more profitable than the plans of the current owner’s.

The irony here is that to this day, nearly nine years later, the property lies vacant and undeveloped. After the real estate bubble burst, the construction company bailed out, and the New London Development Corporation never could secure enough financing.

Adding insult to injury, only eight years after building its $300 million research facility, Pfizer sold it for $55 million, a hefty loss. New London never saw those increases in tax revenue and those permanent jobs turned out to be only eight years “permanent.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas noted “Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. Though citizens are safe from government in their homes, the homes themselves are not.” But, it isn’t just the government that plays the role of bad guy in the Kelo case. It is also the corporate interests behind them, and the greed that has so pervasively intruded modern politics at all levels. The case itself is a perfect demonstration of how money and its influence have poisoned a once healthy democracy. And in the process, money has lead political figures of all persuasions, levels, and branches of government to twist and mold the Constitution to their liking.

So, why bring this up now, almost nine years later?

The more we allow money and economic interests to interfere with the functioning of our democracy, the more we can expect our freedoms and our ability of self-governance to vanish.

The problems our democracy faces today were not just caused by government, and a smaller government alone will not fix them.

The problems our democracy faces are more often caused by the collusion of government with powerful and wealthy oligarchs who use their influence at the expense of ours.