The Patriots of Fort Trumbull
By Scott Bullock
When I first pulled into New London, Conn., that summer evening in 2000 to investigate a potential case, I knew the situation had promise to turn into an important lawsuit. Little did I know, however, that my first meeting with the homeowners and their community supporters would snowball into a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court that could shape constitutional law for decades.
I went to New London because of a letter I received from a local activist about the abuse of eminent domain in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. The letter attracted IJ’s interest because it contained the three elements we always look for in our cases: an important, cutting-edge constitutional issue; a dedicated group of people willing to stand up for their rights; and an outrageous violation of individual liberty at the hands of arrogant government officials. My visit solidly confirmed our initial impressions.
“I knew that this was a brave and principled group of individuals who would make perfect IJ clients. They had endured so much already and had been told by so many that they had no hope of prevailing, and yet they still soldiered on.”
Governments typically abuse eminent domain in one of two ways: by stretching the definition of blight laws to absurd degrees or by jettisoning the blight rationale altogether and using eminent domain simply to generate more tax revenue. That latter manner was at issue in New London. The City did not rely on blight laws but rather claimed it wanted to take this non-blighted, middle-class neighborhood because the new owners could possibly create more taxes for the City than the current homeowners. We were determined to challenge this most expansive definition of eminent domain yet conceived, hopefully all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which had never ruled on the issue. After carefully reviewing the legal issues, we concluded that the New London case provided an excellent opportunity to challenge this type of abuse. During my first meeting with the owners in Susette Kelo’s beautifully restored pink Victorian cottage, I knew that this was a brave and principled group of individuals who would make perfect IJ clients. They had endured so much already and had been told by so many that they had no hope of prevailing, and yet they still soldiered on. Over the years, the homeowners have not only been clients but they have become friends of mine and to the many other folks at IJ who are part of the New London team. They are modern-day patriots. Not only were the legal issues in this case compelling and the homeowners resolute, the actions of local officials were ruthless. The City had given its eminent domain authority to a private body—the New London Development Corporation (NLDC)—and that group proceeded to threaten and then exercise its authority without concern for constitutional rights. This despite the fact that the NLDC already had dozens of acres of land available for development and our clients’ homes constitute less than two acres of a 90-acre development area. The NLDC also engaged in psychological warfare against the homeowners. As soon as the NLDC obtained a property, it tore it down as quickly as possible—a not-so-subtle message to the remaining owners that their home would be next. At the time we filed suit, the NLDC was led by Claire Gaudiani, the former president of Connecticut College, and almost a parody of a condescending, collectivist academic who justified her attempts to remove our clients from their homes as the pursuit of “social justice.” These people had to be stopped. The battle to save Fort Trumbull has been long and very hard-fought, with many ups and downs along the way. We won for most of the homeowners in the trial court only to have the Connecticut Supreme Court rule in favor of the government by a 4-3 margin, setting up our petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. At IJ, though, we are fond of quoting American revolutionary Tom Paine who wrote: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” We still must triumph at the U.S. Supreme Court, but we and the property owners know that we have fought a good and necessary battle against despotism, and we now stand poised to protect the rights of home and small business owners throughout the nation.
Scott Bullock is an Institute for Justice senior attorney.