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Eminent Domain: Your Place or Mine?

Who would have thought that it would take a Supreme Court decision to unite the Republicans and Democrats enough that they would work together to actually propose legislation that would benefit the people who voted for them instead of the corporations that bought them?

In a controversial case brought before the Court, Kelo v New London, CT, it was decided in a 5-4 vote to expand the government power of eminent domain. The government has always had the power to take land to be used for public use such as schools, highways, bridges and such, after paying just compensation, whether you want to sell or not. This decision now says it can be taken to be used for private profit as well.

The city of New London has lost thousands of jobs and has an unemployment rate that's twice the number as the rest of the state. It's city council recently passed an urban redevelopment plan in an effort to revitalize the depressed city. An area on the waterfront has 90 older homes adjoining a 32 acre parcel of vacant land. The city wants to buy those homes, bulldoze them and turn that area along with the vacant land over to a developer who would put in a new waterfront project comprised of restaurants, shops, condos, marinas, and a conference center. The city would lease the land to the developer for 99 years at $1 a year. The reasoning is that the new development would provide jobs and increased taxes which are badly needed to provide basic city services like police and fire protection. The problem is that seven of the people don't want to sell their homes.

Those who may agree with the decision because the new proposed development will benefit more people than the seven it will dispossess would probably feel differently if it was their home being taken. Besides, the city has no guarantee that it will be a successful development. There's no guarantee that the tax base will increase. Consider too, that the "just compensation" the government must pay is arbitrary. It considers only the real estate value of the "house" without thought for the emotional attachment and sentimental value of a "home".

Most people are familiar with the Fifth Amendment in regard to not having to testify against yourself, as in "I refuse to answer on the grounds it may incriminate me" or "pleading the fifth". The other wording in the amendment protects you from being "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

In its ruling the Justices found that there was no Constitutional prohibition against taking the property for private use and that public use is compatible with serving the greater good therefore providing jobs and increasing the city's tax base to pay for public services meets that requirement. They focused on just compensation being the crux of the issue rather than the broadening of the term "public use" to include "public benefit".

Owning your own home is a basic part of the "American Dream". It's the ultimate goal. You get a good education so you can get a good job that pays enough money to be able to own your own home. It was never a part of that dream that said anything about just leasing your home because the government could decide at any time to take it away from you whenever Wal-Mart wanted to build a store where your home happened to be.

In a display of bipartisanship which has been rare in the past five years, Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla from Texas proposed a bill co-sponsored by Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and 19 other representatives that would deny federal funds to any project using eminent domain property seizures for any private development. It passed 365 - 33. More than 40 state legislatures have also introduced legislation that would limit the usage of eminent domain.

In her insightful dissent, Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result."

That perverse result would seem to be the case in New London. Adjoining the other side of the vacant 32 acre parcel is a brand new $300 million research complex built by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Now everyone's jumping on the bandwagon and no one's private property is safe. Before the ink was dry on the decision, the city of Freeport Texas was filing papers to seize the property of two private seafood companies to build an $8 million private marina. What an environment for corruption this ruling creates!

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had nine Sandra Day O'Connors on the Supreme Court? That would almost be enough for an argument in support of cloning.

8-23-05