Sunday, June 23, 2019

From the Archives: 5 years after Kelo v. New London: Are property rights safe?

5 years after Kelo v. New London: Are property rights safe?
June 23, 2010 7:54 PM MST

In its 1972 ruling in Lynch v. Household Finance Corporation, the U.S. Supreme Court explained:

“Property does not have rights. People have rights. The right to enjoy property without unlawful destruction, no less than the right to speak or the right to travel, is in truth a ‘personal’ right.” The court went on to declare that “a fundamental interdependence exists between the personal right to liberty and the personal right to property.”

Property rights – a shorthand term for the rights of people to own and use property – and human rights are indistinguishable. One cannot exist without the other. The right to a free press is impossible without the right to own ink or a photocopier or a typewriter. The right to free exercise of religion is not possible without the right to own churches and seminaries and cemeteries and Talmuds and schools.

Kelo v. New London
It is fitting today to remember these fundamentals because five years ago, on June 23, 2005, the Supreme Court undercut Americans’ property rights in the case of Kelo v. City of New London. In that case, the Court ruled that governments can take the property of one person, using the power of eminent domain, and hand it over to another person, who may be able to generate more tax revenues from the property than the original owner was able to do – or chose to do.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to hold property and to make contracts using that property. The Fifth Amendment makes plain that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”

Property Rights Under Attack
Still, property rights are under assault throughout the United States. Through taxation and regulation, state and federal governments are impeding our rights to do what we please with our property, even if we are not harming other people or their property.

Rick Sincere kelo new london property rights scotus
Towns and cities across the country, for example, have begun to designate certain neighborhoods as “historic districts,” usually without the consent of homeowners in those neighborhoods. This designation is accompanied by hundreds of restrictions regarding what homeowners can do with their property, such as whether they can repaint their homes, put up aluminum siding, replace a roof, cut down a tree, and so forth.

This is not a trivial issue. It affects any person who owns property, whether a residence or a business. “Historic district” designations strike at the root of individual liberty and should not be dismissed lightly. Much is at stake. In fact, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled a similar law unconstitutional because it took away the decision making capacity of homeowners in favor of a politically defined “public good,” thus taking private property for public use without just compensation.

Environmental regulations do much the same. Thousands of acres of farms, ranches, and residential areas have been declared “wetlands” that deserve government protection. The owners of the designated property are not permitted to plant crops, graze cattle, or build homes or factories on government-designated “wetlands” unless they can cut through miles of red tape.

Kelo’s Legacy
The Kelo decision states that it is permissible for the government to use eminent domain to seize one person's property and give it to another. The recipient is almost invariably wealthier and better connected politically than the victim of the seizure.

In the aftermath of Kelo, the good news is that the American people demanded that laws be made to reject the Court’s decision. Across the country, state legislatures have passed statutes or even constitutional amendments to protect people against eminent domain abuse. (In Virginia, the law is somewhat better than it was but still weaker than it should be.)

The bad news -- sadly ironic news -- is that the situation that started it all, Pfizer's demand that the city of New London, Connecticut, destroy a working-class neighborhood to create housing for its high-paid executives, turned out to be moot. Pfizer pulled out of the project, which was never built, and Suzette Kelo's former neighborhood is a desert, populated only by "feral cats," as one chronicler noted. New London took a vibrant cityscape and turned it into blight.

Kelo’s lesson is that nobody’s property is safe, even though property rights should be seen, properly, as one component the bundle of basic human rights that each individual possesses.

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on June 23, 2010. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

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