This land is our land?
The liberal wing of the court, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ruled in favor of the "public interest", a position they have consistently supported. Under the principle of eminent domain, the state has the power to take "real property" to complete projects, such as highways, provided the government offers "just compensation" (as is spelled out in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution) to the owner whose land is being appropriated.
However, Thursday's ruling in Kelo vs. New London would allow state and local governments the ability to seize land and offer it to private development groups. Kelo argued in the case that her property could not be taken and given to another private body under the reasoning that the development corporation would be able to generate higher tax revenues for the locality. Over the years, state and local governments have increased the scope of eminent domain to include economic development plans, but never to the point where private development interests have been able to be awarded such land for their uses.
In his opinion for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said that local officials, and not federal courts, should have the final say on the merits of a development plan in their community. Stevens found that the, "...city has carefully formulated an economic development that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including, but by no means limited to, new jobs and increased tax revenue...". Stevens then went on to also write that, "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...".
Justice Kennedy, in his concurring opinion, took a somewhat narrower view of the power afforded local governments pointing out that a development project that showed only, "incidental or pretextual public benefits", could be challenged.
In the dissent, Justice Sandra Day O' Connor felt that the court was not doing its duty in enforcing the Constitution saying that:
"Finally, in a coda, the Court suggests that property owners should turn to the States, who may or may not choose to impose appropriate limits on economic development takings. Ante, at 19. This is an abdication of our responsibility. States play many important functions in our system of dual sovereignty, but compensating for our refusal to enforce properly the Federal Constitution (and a provision meant to curtail state action, no less) is not among them."
What to make of this decision? On its face, it is a major victory for private developers. The way has been opened for those with deep pockets and the proper connections to reap huge financial benefits under the guise of helping the "public". Under this ruling, a development project doesn't even have to be open to the public; developers need only show economicic benefits to the community at large to appropriate the land.
Furthermore, individual property owners took a beating here. This ruling will make it far more difficult for the average citizen to get "market value" for their property as the government, and not the market, can determine worth.
As someone who tries to follow the court with some regularity, I am not shocked by the decision. However, as a Democrat, I am disappointed with the ruling delivered by the liberal justices. In this case, I think their support of the "greater good" overlooked the fact that this decision will greatly increase the political and economic power of development interests...intereststs that are most often aligned with the Republican Party. It's the rare occasion that I would agree with Justice Clarence Thomas, who pointed out in his separate dissent that poor blacks would be the group facing the most adverse effects from this ruling. Even if the scope of this practice can be contained by challenges as noted by Justice Kennedy, I don't like the message that this case sends to politicans or special interests.