By Philip Klein
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to grant a local government unprecedented power to seize its citizens’ homes has triggered a fierce backlash from New York to California.
Property-rights advocates have long warned of governmental abuse of eminent domain powers to acquire land for private purposes, but the issue exploded into the mainstream last month. On June 23, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on the side of New London, Conn., which is planning to seize the waterfront homes of Susette Kelo and her neighbors as part of a plan to build offices, a marina and a retail complex.
Americans reacted with almost universal outrage to the ruling, and politicians have taken heed. In 28 states, lawmakers have initiated actions ranging from re-examining eminent domain laws to voting for constitutional amendments to limit government takings. Additional bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate.
“People are in utter disbelief that the Supreme Court could issue that decision,” said Bert Gall, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represented the homeowners in Kelo v. New London. “They understand that this means open season on their homes and businesses.”
The Castle Coalition, a network of activists opposing eminent domain that was put together by the Institute for Justice, has seen its membership double to more than 2,800 in the weeks following the Kelo decision.
The furor generated by the Kelo ruling should also bolster conservative arguments in the upcoming confirmation battle over John Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court.
The court’s most conservative justices (Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist) voted with Sandra Day O’Connor on the side of the homeowners in Kelo. Liberal justices, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, comprised the majority.
“[Kelo] is about private property rights, which is something that has a broad appeal to Americans,” said Wendy Long, counsel for the Judicial Confirmation Network. “The decision can show people that the Supreme Court nomination is not just an issue that should be of concern to social conservatives, but … to all those who care about faithfulness to the Constitution.”
Meanwhile, the battle over eminent domain has moved to the states. In Texas, the House unanimously approved a bill that would amend the state constitution to prohibit local governments from using eminent domain for private economic development. Similar legislation has been proposed in California. Lawmakers in more than a dozen other states have passed or proposed bills that would aim to protect homeowners.
In Missouri, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt formed a task force to study eminent domain, and in New York, an assemblyman introduced a bill that would give homeowners more time to appeal condemnations. In Connecticut, where the Kelo case originated, the legislature voted down a bill that sought to limit property seizures, but Republican Gov. Jodi Rell called for a moratorium on all eminent domain actions in the state until the legislature can re-examine the existing law.
In addition to actions in the states, Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) has proposed a bill that would deny federal funds to projects in which eminent domain is used for private economic development. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.
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