7/31/2005

The ongoing government outrage: Somerville (MA) Journal, 7/7/05

By Roger Kolb

Highland Avenue’s Jim Campano isn’t as famous as Elie Wiesel. But just as Wiesel has become a living reminder of the Holocaust, Jim, 64, is a symbol of another government outrage, this one ongoing: Eminent domain abuse. In 1958, Jim, a West Ender, was kicked out of his home by the City of Boston in partnership with its developer buddies, the Rappoports, in order to put up Charles River Park.

Applauding on the sidelines were Boston’s big-city dailies, Democratic as well as Republican, who cheerfully sacrificed the feelings and economic welfare of little guys like Jim on the altar of Progress.

With the highly-publicized Kelo vs. New London before the Supreme Court, I interviewed Jim in this space a few months ago in a primer about eminent domain abuse.

On June 23 the Kelo decision came down, with the Court, especially its liberals, siding by a 5-4 vote with Big Brother against you, me, Jim, and New London’s homeowners, including Suzette Kelo and Wilhelmina Dery, who, silly her, thought she had more right to her home of 87 years than Pfizer Pharmaceutical.

I asked Jim whether the Kelo decision surprised him.

“Well, yeah,” he said with an anguished look on his face, running his fingers through his tousled, salt-and-pepper hair. “I was surprised that not a single one of the Court’s liberals sided with the homeowners. They didn’t and today no one’s home or business is safe.”

The Supreme Court has the authority to declare unconstitutional state or federal statutes, as well as decisions handed down by state or lower federal courts. Judicial review, as it is called, isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, but fully 67 of our founding fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, in their utterances public and private, written and spoken, expected the Supreme Court to assume that authority.

In Kelo, what was at issue was whether a community (New London), could take private property away from someone (its homeowners) and give to another private party (Pfizer Pharmaceutical or whomever) in the interests of economic development. The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment says that government can only take private property for “public use” and with “just compensation.”

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens declared that economic dvelopment is a valid reason for property taking because it has been going on for some time and with the blessings of courts, both state and federal. He added that the disputed property wasn’t being taken from one private party to be given to another because New London had its sights on the property before companies such as Pfizer entered the picture. It was being taken by economically-distressed New London for whatever purpose it deemed fit.

Neither Sandra Day O’Connor nor Clarence Thomas in a highly-detailed and informative second dissenting opinion bought the argument that Pfizer wasn’t being shown favoritism. (A check of the dates backs them up. Pfizer annnounced that it intended to build a global research plant in New London in February 1998 and it was after that, not before, that the nonprofit New London Development Corporation was created to, among other things, consider the possibility of property seizure by eminent domain.) The four dissenting justices added that if political entities were to be allowed to invoke eminent domain merely to broaden their tax base, the phrase “public use” was being re-defined to justify any taking under the sun.

Justices O’Connor and Thomas cited the sanctity in which our founding fathers as well as the reigning legal authority, William Blackstone, held private property, and declared that there was no way they would have approved of eminent domain for economic revival. To think that Hamilton, Washington, and Blackstone would have condoned, let alone applauded, the New London takings is preposterous.

But for a few passing references to the Fifth Amendment, Justice Stevens said nothing about the intentions of our founders. Elsewhere he declared the Supreme Court does not have the responsibility to see to it that any particular project on taken property comes to fruition.

“That,” said Jim, “is one of the most disturbing aspects of eminent domain. The most disturbing is that people are kicked out of their homes, often in exchange for a pittance, and that 90% of the businesses that have to re-locate fail. Another disturbing thing is the one Stevens and his like-minded justices don’t want to think about. Quite a few of the projects for which land is taken and property destroyed are never built. In 1981, Detroit took roughly 2,000 homes so that GM could build another plant. No sooner was the land taken and the houses leveled than GM decided it didn’t want to build on that site after all. Is that justice?”


Somerville Journal: www.townonline.com/somerville