11/12/04 — Government vs. the people: Watch court’s decision in Connecticut case

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Government vs. the people: Watch court’s decision in Connecticut case

The Supreme Court will tell us next year whether we must redefine our concept of individual freedom.

If it votes in favor of a Connecticut city’s government in an eminent domain case, Americans — and especially poor Americans — will lose protection against the seizure of private property.

Eminent domain is the taking of private property by the government — for “public use,” according to the dictionary. For example, a government may take a person’s land or home to build a road, paying a reasonable price for the property, whether or not the landowner wants to sell it.

Now, however, there seems to be controversy over what constitutes “public use.”

In Nevada, the city of Las Vegas took commercial property from a 72-year-old woman, bulldozed it and turned it over to a corporation controlled by casino owners. In New Jersey, Atlantic City tried to take a widow’s house so a Donald Trump casino could put up a parking lot.

Mississippi tried to take 23 acres from private owners to give to the Nissan Corp. Cypress, Calif., condemned land owned by a church so the Costco store chain could get another site.

See the pattern? In nearly all cases, the property would go to someone who would pay higher taxes on it. More and more government officials consider this a “public use.”

The Washington-based Institute for Justice, a privately funded civil rights law firm, has documented 10,000 threatened or completed condemnations to benefit private individuals or companies.

These condemnations are based on this attitude: If a property owner is not paying enough taxes on a piece of property, find another use for it and take it away from him, whether he wants to sell it or not.

The case going before the Supreme Court next year is called Kelo v. City of New London, Conn. In it, Susette Kelo and several neighbors filed suit after city officials announced plans to destroy their homes for a riverfront hotel, health club and conference center. The complex would complement a new research facility for the Pfizer pharmaceutical company.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled, 4-3, that the city could commit this legal thievery. It ruled, as the Institute for Justice put it, that “the mere promise of additional tax revenue justified the eviction of longtime homeowners.”

If the U.S. Supreme Court lets the opinion stand, all of us will have to reconsider what our property rights are, and whether those rights are safe when powerful corporations line up with local governments.

Published in Editorials on November 12, 2004 11:04 AM