Lessons from Kelo, the Eminent Domain Case That Wiped Out a Neighborhood

Revisiting a notorious Supreme Court ruling.

In its 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a Connecticut municipality to forcibly condemn multiple private properties in a well-tended working-class neighborhood in order to clear space for the construction of various upscale amenities, including a luxury hotel, office towers, and apartments. According to the majority opinion of Justice John Paul Stevens, this seizure of private property counted as a legitimate “public purpose” under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment because the city’s eminent domain proceedings were part of a “comprehensive” redevelopment scheme that was carefully designed to bring “appreciable benefits to the community.”

How did that work out? Writing in the latest issue of The Weekly Standard, Charlotte Allen describes a recent visit to Fort Trumbull, the New London neighborhood that was bulldozed thanks to the Kelo ruling. It is now the city’s “most desolate neighborhood,” she writes. “Actually, ex-neighborhood, for there was not a residential property standing on the entire tract.”

Credit: Institute for JusticeCredit: Institute for JusticeAs we’ve previously reported here at Reason, Kelo was a colossal failure on all counts. Despite prevailing at the Supreme Court, New London’s redevelopment plan was scrapped, the razed neighborhood was never rebuilt, and the Pfizer corporation, which inspired the whole saga by inking the original real estate deal that led New London to set its sites on Fort Trumbull, pulled out of the city entirely in 2009. After Hurricane Irene blew through town a couple years later, New London urged city residents to use Susette Kelo’s barren former neighborhood as a dump site for storm refuse.

In her piece, Allen makes the case that Kelo is “something more than the story of a particularly nasty and overbearing abuse of either eminent domain or government power in general. It was also a tragedy,” she maintains, “with all the classical Greek elements: hubris, turn of fortune, cathartic downfall, and possibly the ‘learning through suffering’ that Aristotle in his Poetics argued was the point of tragic drama.”

That's certainly a plausible interpretation of the case. But there’s also at least one major player in this tragedy who has yet to show any signs of learning his lesson: Justice John Paul Stevens.

In his 2011 memoir Five Chiefs, Stevens discussed many of the big cases that he encountered during his long tenure on the bench (he was appointed in 1975 and retired in 2010), including District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010). But Kelo goes entirely unmentioned in the book, despite the extraordinary public backlash sparked by his controversial majority opinion. I criticized him for this absence at the time, and Stevens later responded to my critique, though his defense left a lot to be desired. In essence, Stevens asserted that Kelo was any easy case since it “adhered to the doctrine of judicial restraint, which allows state legislatures broad latitude in making economic policy decisions in their respective jurisdictions.”

Perhaps a future Supreme Court will learn from Stevens’ example and avoid another tragedy.

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  • Paul.||

    Damon Root on Lessons from Kelo, the Eminent Domain Case That Wiped Out a Neighborhood

    Do I have to read the article to learn the answer is, "Don't ever do it"?

  • John||

    Those people should set up a vigil around Stevens' house and show up wherever he speaks to ask him to explain his decision. People are never held accountable for this shit.

  • sarcasmic||

    You can't fight city hall.

  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    Or just put a bunch of fleas in his underwear drawer.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Those people should open up a liquor store and lobby to have him forcibly evicted from his property so they can open up a business there. Surely all those alcohol taxes exceed his property tax bill.

  • John||

    Even that is not insulting enough. In a just world the city would force him to sell his home to tear it down just to build another one.

  • Spoonman.||

    I think there was a movement to ED his vacation home in New Hampshire.

  • Number 2||

    That was David Souter, not Stevens.

  • WTF||

    That shit only applies to the little people, not our overlords in DC.

  • DrAwkward||

    IIRC, there was a movement after the Kelo decision to form a "comprehensive redevelopment scheme" to turn Stevens' house into a museum about eminent domain abuse. Would have been great, if this sort of thing ever happened to elites.

  • JW||

    What are you talking about? The KKKorporations were behind this whole thing! This is why we need to crack down on the power of corporate money in elections, through publicly financed elections! Then, we can tax the money that they would normally give in an election, for providing healthy soy milk and inclusive playgrounds for needy children.

    Er...sorry, I forgot to de-activate my proglodyte chip.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Justice Stevens said he merely followed precedent, including a 1954 decision in which Supreme Court ruled unanimously against a Washington, D.C., department store that was condemned in a redevelopment project. Like New London, that project involved private developers overhauling a “blighted” part of the city.

    Failure to bring in sufficient tax revenues for the Crown means that you're blighting the area and must be evicted in favor of more profitable tenants.

  • Doctor Whom||

    blighted, adj. occupied by people or businesses whom we should prefer to see somewhere else; desired by a politically connected developer

  • Homple||

    ^^A definition worthy of Ambrose Bierce.

  • Anti_Govt_Rebel||

    The "following precedent" excuse is responsible for all kinds of bad decisions.
    Rather than following the actual text of the constitution, courts' tendancy to "follow precedent" or "stare decisis" seems to have priority over the supreme law as written.

  • Duke Trshmnstr of Stench||

    Eminent Domain is the eugenics of property rights.

    The government decides that your title to property is inferior to somebody else's, and so they decide to destroy your title in favor of progress and efficiency.

  • Paul.||

    See, the problem here with repeatedly showing... proving that Kelo was an utter, unmitigated failure, is that the people who pushed and supported ED takings for public purpose don't care about the particulars with the outcome of Kelo. It was a moral taking, it was an issue of morality, and eminent domain for urban renewal is morally correct.

    It's certainly good that Kelo serves as an embarrassment but I'm not convinced a single person who cheered on watching Suzette Kelo getting thrown off her property has had a change of heart.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    To have a change of heart they would need a heart in the first place. In my experience the sort of State (dis)functionaries who do this kind of thing mostly don't.

  • Number 2||

    Why is everybody talking about Erectile Dysfunction takings?

  • ArbutusJoe||

    See, that was Kelo's mistake. The ads clearly state that one should call a doctor if the Eminence lasts more than 12 hours.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Those people weren't making optimal use of the property.

    That's stealing from the government.

  • ||

    Not giving is taking!

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I wonder how many people think Pfizer should have been COMPELLED to follow through on their plans.

  • playa manhattan||

    If they were complicit in the ED, I sure do.

  • tarran||

    IIRC Pfizer wasn't involved. They were merely building a manufacturing facility. The development was the brainchild of some politically connected developers hoping to make a quick buck.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    What is it about human nature that it rarely questions the concentration of vast power in supercompact leadership arrangements? Most of the planet's horrors can be attributed to this type of entity.

  • Paul.||

    Because this time it'll work?

  • sarcasmic||

    "We are the ones we have been waiting for."

  • Doctor Whom||

    I've read one hypothesis that it once conferred an evolutionary advantage. If so, then not all of us have evolved beyond it.

  • Zeb||

    I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that for most people in most of history, questioning and challenging power like that won't make their lives any better and is likely to make them worse. Most people just want to live their lives.

  • Paul.||

    . Most people just want to live their lives.

    And make sure people they don't like get plenty of interference with theirs.

  • Tonio||

    No, I don't think that many people want to control others. But they are easily convinced by claims that their own safety depends on government controlling other people.

  • Raven Nation||

    Mostly true I think. The argument for taxing the rich, for example, is to provide necessary services to everyone else.

    But, the increasing importance of "fairness" is also a factor. So, some people will support taxes on the rich because it's "fair" even if there is no direct benefit or safety to be gained.

  • Tonio||

    It's important to always question why essential services can't be provided with the existing tax base.

    And about that fairness thing, I always ask why is if fair to tax people at different rates.

    It really comes down to envy, but it doesn't work to tell people that they are envious of the better-off, or that government benefits are stealing.

    People really want to believe that the safety net will take care of them. And fear of being impoverished is very real.

  • GregMax||

    Eminent domain, civil forfeiture, internment . . .
    FYTW

    We live in a country of sheep. But things will get better :)

  • Doctor Whom||

    Stevens asserted that Kelo was any easy case since it “adhered to the doctrine of judicial restraint, which allows state legislatures broad latitude in making economic policy decisions in their respective jurisdictions.”

    That argument makes sweet baby reason cry. What he's talking about isn't judicial restraint; it's judicial abdication.

  • Paul.||

    Your constitutional rights don't apply in the states.

  • mr simple||

    Perhaps a future Supreme Court will learn from Stevens’ example and avoid another tragedy.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Yeah.

  • Brian||

    I'm pretty sure the lesson learned is that government can confiscate whatever property it wants, provided that it is in accordance with the law.

    Which is another way of saying, "government can confiscate whatever property it wants."

  • Herpes Trismegistus||

    FYTW writ large.

  • Tonio||

    Well, there is a precedent. Justice Lewis Powell, voted with the majority in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986, a privacy case where SCOTUS upheld Georgia's anti-sodomy statute). After his retirement, Powell stated in public speeches that his vote on Bowers had been in error. In 2003 the court later reversed itself on Bowers in Lawrence v. Texas.

  • JW||

    Perhaps a future Supreme Court will learn from Stevens’ example and avoid another tragedy.

    Scalia's already tipped his FYTW hat, as far as anything even remotely approaching principled jurisprudence during the next manufactured crisis.

  • Brian||

    After Hurricane Irene blew through town a couple years later, New London urged city residents to use Susette Kelo’s barren former neighborhood as a dump site for storm refuse.

    Hey: sounds like "public use" to me. What's the problem here?

  • wilson_w27||

    my friend's sister-in-law makes an hour on the laptop . She has been fired for five months but last month her pay was just working on the laptop for a few hours. you could try this out.......
    http://www.Jobs84.com

  • Freddy B||

    Those who suffer and learn are not the power seekers whose hubris caused the tragedy.

  • Anti_Govt_Rebel||

    "Perhaps a future Supreme Court will learn from Stevens’ example and avoid another tragedy."

    Don't count on it. All 9 justices are black-robed political hacks.

  • cheap soccer jerseys||

    The government decides that your title to property is inferior to somebody else's, and so they decide to destroy your title in favor of progress and efficiency. Impressive

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