Court Rules Cities May Seize Homes
By HOPE YEN
WASHINGTON (AP) - A divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that
local governments may seize people's homes and businesses
against their will for private development in a decision
anxiously awaited in communities where economic growth often
is at war with individual property rights.
The 5-4 ruling - assailed by dissenting Justice Sandra Day
O'Connor as handing "disproportionate influence and power" to
the well-heeled in America - was a defeat for Connecticut
residents whose homes are slated for destruction to make room
for an office complex. They had argued that cities have no
right to take their land except for projects with a clear
public use, such as roads or schools, or to revitalize
As a result, cities now have wide power to bulldoze residences
for projects such as shopping malls and hotel complexes in
order to generate tax revenue.
The case was one of six resolved by justices on Thursday.
Among those still pending for the court, which next meets on
Monday, is one testing the constitutionality of displaying the
Ten Commands on government property.
Writing for the court's majority in Thursday's ruling, Justice
John Paul Stevens said local officials, not federal judges,
know best in deciding whether a development project will
benefit the community. States are within their rights to pass
additional laws restricting condemnations if residents are
overly burdened, he said.
"The city has carefully formulated an economic development
plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the
community, including - but by no means limited to - new jobs
and increased tax revenue," Stevens wrote.
Stevens was joined in his opinion by other members of the
court's liberal wing - David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg
and Stephen G. Breyer. The bloc typically has favored greater
deference to cities, which historically have used the takings
power for urban renewal projects that benefit the lower and
They were joined by Reagan appointee Justice Anthony Kennedy
in rejecting the conservative principle of individual property
rights. Critics had feared that would allow a small group of
homeowners to stymie rebuilding efforts that benefit the city
through added jobs and more tax revenue for social programs.
"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," Stevens wrote.
O'Connor argued that cities should not have unlimited
authority to uproot families, even if they are provided
compensation, simply to accommodate wealthy developers.
"Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another
private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be
random," she wrote. "The beneficiaries are likely to be those
citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the
political process, including large corporations and
Connecticut residents involved in the lawsuit expressed dismay
and pledged to keep fighting.
"It's a little shocking to believe you can lose your home in
this country," said resident Bill Von Winkle, who said he
would refuse to leave his home, even if bulldozers showed up.
"I won't be going anywhere. Not my house. This is definitely
not the last word."
Scott Bullock, an attorney for the Institute for Justice
representing the families, added: "A narrow majority of the
court simply got the law wrong today and our Constitution and
country will suffer as a result."
At issue was the scope of the Fifth Amendment, which allows
governments to take private property through eminent domain if
the land is for "public use."
Susette Kelo and several other homeowners in a working-class
neighborhood in New London, Conn., filed suit after city
officials announced plans to raze their homes for a riverfront
hotel, health club and offices.
New London officials countered that the private development
plans served a public purpose of boosting economic growth that
outweighed the homeowners' property rights, even if the area
Connecticut state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, a former
mayor and city council member who voted in favor of eminent
domain, said the decision "means a lot for New London's
The lower courts had been divided on the issue, with many
allowing a taking only if it eliminates blight.
Nationwide, more than 10,000 properties were threatened or
condemned in recent years, according to the Institute for
Justice, a Washington public interest law firm representing
the New London homeowners.
New London, a town of less than 26,000, once was a center of
the whaling industry and later became a manufacturing hub.
More recently the city has suffered the kind of economic woes
afflicting urban areas across the country, with losses of
residents and jobs.
City officials envision a commercial development that would
attract tourists to the Thames riverfront, complementing an
adjoining Pfizer Corp. research center and a proposed Coast
New London was backed in its appeal by the National League of
Cities, which argued that a city's eminent domain power was
critical to spurring urban renewal with development projects
such Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Kansas City's Kansas
Under the ruling, residents still will be entitled to "just
compensation" for their homes as provided under the Fifth
Amendment. However, Kelo and the other homeowners had refused
to move at any price, calling it an unjustified taking of
The case is Kelo et al v. City of New London, 04-108.