October 28, 2022
When the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its ruling in Kelo v. New London (2004), it
went down as of the worst economic-based decisions presented by the highest court in the land. It marked a significant expansion of government power over their citizens with respect to private property rights and the definition of public interest. Eminent domain is the legal process by which the government can “take private property and convert it to public use.” The Kelo case posed the question of the breadth of the government’s power in eminent domain.
What was the Kelo V. New London Case?
The city of New London, CT, used eminent domain to attempt to seize a piece of private property, owned by resident Susette Kelo, to sell to private developers. In turn, Ms. Kelo and a group of other inhabitants of New London sued the city, arguing that New London violated their 5th amendment right that private property can only “be taken for public use” with just compensation. The basis of the case was that the property was not seized for public use, as it was sold to private companies and not directly utilized by the city.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of New London, CT. The opinion of the court was
provided by Justice John Paul Stevens, which provided the legal precedent for the government’s “right” to seize land for private use as long as the land would provide some sort of public benefit. This ruling greatly expanded the traditional definition of the power of eminent domain, making it especially controversial. Justice Stevens explained that the “Court’s authority…extends only to determining whether the City’s proposed condemnations are for a ‘public use’ within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.” Kelo broadened the scope of what could be defined as public use under eminent domain. In simpler terms, the supreme court decision created a legal precedent by which land seized can be deemed as public use even if it is not directly beneficial to the public.
In a post-Kelo world, the phrase “public use” in the fifth amendment can be applied to anything deemed
as “economic development.” Justice Stevens justified economic development as “a traditional and long accepted function of government,” and there is “no principled way of distinguishing economic development from the other public purposes.” Which morphed the terminology of “economic
development” into a function of the “public use” term in the fifth amendment.
The decision marked a heavy expansion of governmental power at the expense of a citizen’s right to
have private property. Ultimately, the Kelo v. New London decision would set a precedent
for any future cases, increasing the ability to abuse the powers of eminent domain.
Anything considered a reason to spur economic development could be used as justification for
seizing private property under Justice Stevens’ opinion.
Reactions to Kelo V. New London
The visceral reactions to Kelo v. New London were not exclusive to a singular political party. Both
Republicans and Democrats strongly disagreed with the majority opinion of the court, as the decision
would emplace negative impacts on the broader citizenry of the United States.
A study by the Institute of Justice about the aftermath of the Kelo decision outlined the various state
responses, which resolutely illustrated how unpopular it was. Only three states decided not to
strengthen eminent domain laws, while 47 states opted to make eminent domain seizures more difficult, given the scope of the supreme court decision. Among those, 12 states even went so far as to amend their state constitutions to prohibit eminent domain for private development.
Legacy of Kelo v. New London
Subsequent to seizing the land of homeowners in New London, the city completely bulldozed the
area. The intention was to build an array of upscale shops, a brand-new hotel, and luxury condo buildings; however, the building project was never completed.
The very economic development that “justified” the seizing of private land never occurred. The legacy of the Supreme Court ruling has very little to do with the “economic development” that New London argued would be of public use. Now, enshrined in legal precedent is the justification for private
land to be seized for private uses if government can apply a very nebulous standard of “economic development.” Without the actions of the many states that pushed against the decision, the private property of tens of millions of American citizens would be at risk.