Protecting Property Rights
Private property rights are fundamental to free societies. Without this basic right firmly established in the law, the people can never be truly protected from an overreaching government.
William Pitt the Elder, the great British statesman and namesake of Pennsylvania's second largest city, wrote eloquently of this cherished freedom in a frequently quoted passage on the topic:
"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it, the storm may enter, the rain may enter, but the King of England cannot enter. All of his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined cottage."
Our Founders understood the importance of this principle as well, enshrining property rights into the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. Specifically, the Fifth Amendment reads, " nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."
So when the Supreme Court gathered in February 2005 to hear arguments in the now-infamous Kelo v. City of New London case, most observers thought it should be a fairly clear-cut case.
The dispute originated when the City of New London, Connecticut cited "public use" as its justification for seizing land held by a number of private owners, including Susette Kelo.
Unlike normal uses of government's eminent domain powers, where the land is taken for a clear-cut public use such as a road or a bridge, New London officials wanted the land in order to make room for a private development. In essence, they wanted to take the land from one private owner and give it to another. Their argument was that the future economic development that would result from taking the land would benefit the general public, thus making it a public use.
To the shock and dismay of property owners across the country, the Supreme Court sided with the City of New London. An important line was officially crossed.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor summed up the implications of the decision in her dissent, writing, "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party ...The government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result."
Understandably, the Kelo decision sparked prompt and passionate outrage. In response, Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), then the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Private Property Rights Protection Act. This legislation restricts federal funding to states that abuse their eminent domain power in the same manner as the City of New London did in the Kelo case.
On November 3, 2005, the House passed this legislation by a vote of 376-38. But, despite this overwhelming bipartisan support, the Senate did not act on the bill before the end of the 109th Congress.
With time, this issue has moved off of the front page and to the back of many people's minds. But the threat of eminent domain abuse has not gone away. Congressman Sensenbrenner plans to reintroduce his Private Property Rights Protection Act in this session of Congress, and I will once again support it. Until the Supreme Court has another chance to rule on this issue, this may be the most effective remedy available.
Even this, however, is not a perfect solution. For that, we must look to the Supreme Court and hope that its future membership will be less inclined to rewrite Constitutional doctrine than the Court that decided the Kelo case. One of our most basic freedoms is at stake.