June Marks 10th Anniversary of Supreme Court’s Infamous Kelo Eminent Domain Ruling

Institute for Justice · June 2, 2015

Arlington, Va.—June 23 marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most universally despised opinion in modern memory:  Kelo v. City of New London.

The decision stripped any protection against eminent domain abuse by the government out of the U.S. Constitution. If a developer merely promises to pay more taxes on your property, the High Court ruled that the government can take your home, your business or your land and hand it over to that private developer for his or her private use.

The only thing more outrageous than the decision is what happened to the land since then: nothing. As this video demonstrates, the land taken through the Kelo ruling to complement the nearby Pfizer facility is home now to nothing more than weeds and feral cats. And Pfizer, which received a generous package of financial incentives and tax breaks to lure it to New London, closed its facility there in 2010.

“Although the Supreme Court failed to protect property owners from eminent domain abuse, a historic national backlash against eminent domain for private gain in the wake of Kelo sparked reforms and court decisions in 47 states that better protect private property rights,” said IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, who will become the Institute for Justice’s president in 2016 and who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. “Susette Kelo and her neighbors may have lost their homes, but their fight made a huge impact on the law and the nation to better protect property owners nationwide.”

Although the widespread abuse of eminent domain has abated, pockets of abuse continue.  For example, a New Jersey trial court ruled late last year that the government needs no specific plans to take and destroy a person’s home; it can take seize and bulldoze a home for no specific use whatsoever.  IJ continues to represent Atlantic City homeowner Charlie Birnbaum in that case.

IJ Litigation Director Dana Berliner, who argued the Kelo case before the Connecticut Supreme Court and was co-counsel in the Supreme Court argument, said, “As the economy recovers, cities will again imagine that eminent domain is the path to municipal riches. But eminent domain for private development is unconstitutional and wrong. It also rarely lives up to its billing, as the events in New London show. There are plenty of ways to develop without eminent domain, and that’s what cities should focus on. ”

As documented by the Institute for Justice, the warning issued by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her dissenting opinion has unfortunately come to pass:  “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”

Kelo became the subject of a well-reviewed book, Little Pink House, which itself provided the foundation for an upcoming movie that is expected to be produced and directed by Ted and Courtney Balaker, co-founders of Korchula Productions.  George Mason University School of Law professor Ilya Somin recently released a scholarly analysis of the Kelo ruling in his book, The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain.