Eminent Domain

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation. -Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution

I bolded the part that’s relevant to this post.  That bold part?  “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  That is what we call eminent domain.  It sounds boring, but it’s not.  One of the things that makes American uniquely America is our right to our property.  Hopefully you only know from watching shows like CSI (or my favorite of the moment- Castle) and not from experience, but cops need a warrant to search someone’s private property.  That’s the due process part of the amendment.  Can you imagine the violation and abuse of power if any law enforcement agent could come into your home and search it for whatever, whenever?  Hopefully, we’d still have some good guys in law enforcement, but don’t you think that sort of job would attract criminals?  That’s why we have due process of the law.

What about the private property being taken for public use?  That means that if a local government needs to build a courthouse, a school, a road, or some other public facility, and the best place to do it is on property owned by a private citizen, the government may not seize that land without just compensation.  A few years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court redefined what constituted “public use” of property in the landmark Kelo versus City of New London case.

Ms. Susette Kelo was a divorcee living in New London, CT, in a century old home that she had bought after her divorce and fixed up herself.  In 1998, she read in the newspaper that Pfizer Corp, the privately owned pharmaceutical company, was going to build a $300 million global research and development center in the area, and that her home would be bought out for a municipal redevelopment plan.  She said, “I read that residents in Fort Trumbull were going to be bought out of their properties and that those who refused to sell were going to be taken by eminent domain. That’s how it all started. I read about it in the newspaper.”

Ms. Kelo’s neighbor’s eventually accepted the money and moved out, and one by one, their houses were torn down.  But Ms. Kelo refused to be bullied by a government that would take her property for the benefit of a giant corporation.  Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of New London.  The majority opinion of the case was that, ” a city may claim private property under the Fifth Amendment so long as it does so as part of a clear economic development plan intended to benefit the community as a whole.”

So basically, the Supreme Court ruled that a government may seize the property of individual citizens whenever they feel like it’s a good idea.  I’m sure that’s exactly what the founding fathers had in mind when they wrote the Constitution after winning a revolutionary war against the oppressive British government (insert sarcasm here).

That was in 2005.  There has been more than enough time to see the dramatic economic improvements promised by the Pfizer Corp and the city of New London.  So what’s going on in New London these days?  Has it prospered with the redevelopment?  The city and state spent $78 million of tax-payer money to bulldoze the area in preparation for the hotels, condos, and strip malls that were to bring job creation and economic prosperity to the area.  Four years later, the site sits undeveloped.

In November 2009, Pfizer Corp. announced that it would be shutting its R & D center in New London, and transferring the 1,400 people working there to another facility.  The promised economic boom fell flat before it ever even got off the ground.  Ms. Kelo was forced to leave her home so it could be bulldozed and redeveloped into a wasteland of weeds and broken dreams.

What does this prove?  I don’t know if it proves anything, but it is yet another example of the Midas touch of government when it messes with the affairs of private citizens.  That is if Midas had turned everything he touched to chicken manure instead of gold.  I take that back.  At least chicken manure is good fertilizer.  What good is a vacant parking lot where Ms. Kelo’s home once stood?