Kelo v. City of New London Summary |
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Kelo v. City of New London Summary |

Following the closure of a federal naval center
in New London, Connecticut, the City faced significant economic challenges and eventually
was designated a “distressed municipality” by the state. The City had been hoping to
entice a large pharmaceutical company (Pfizer) to build a global research and development
headquarters there. The state’s municipal development statute authorized taking private
property for economic development projects, and the City promised to use its eminent domain
power to acquire the land that would become part of the redevelopment area to benefit
Pfizer. Officials claimed the project would benefit New London in the form of jobs, increased
tax revenues, and the revitalization of economically depressed areas. In Kelo v. City of New London, Susette Kelo
and nine other property owners (plaintiffs) sued the city in state court, challenging
the use of eminent domain for the project. The plaintiffs argued that, because their
properties were being taken for sale to private entities, the takings were not “for public
use” as required by the Fifth Amendment. The trial court partially granted the plaintiffs’
request for an injunction. Where the City had planned to put office space, the court
found that the taking was not a valid exercise of eminent domain; by contrast, the takings
were held valid for the parcels where a park and marina would be built. The Connecticut
state court of appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding all of the takings
valid. The plaintiffs appealed to the United States Supreme Court. This was a particularly controversial case,
resulting in a highly divided Court. Writing for the majority, Justice Stevens
held that the City’s exercise of eminent domain was proper, because it furthered a
public purpose by providing new jobs and tax revenue. While takings conferring solely private
benefits for private parties are unconstitutional, the Court had long ago rejected a narrow view
of “public use.” In Berman v. Parker and Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, the Court
upheld takings of private property for transfer to other private parties to remedy blight
and avoid the dangers of “land oligopoly.” The Court held that a state’s determinations
about the benefits of a proposed redevelopment program are entitled to great deference; courts
should not scrutinize each parcel, but should consider the redevelopment program as a whole.
In the majority’s view, potential economic benefits conferred on the public, even if
not “reasonably certain,” were sufficient to satisfy the Fifth Amendment’s public
use requirement. Justice Kennedy agreed that rational basis
review was appropriate and the legislature was entitled to deference. However, Kennedy
wrote separately to say the Court should make findings of fact to ensure that certain private
entities were not unfairly benefitting from the takings over others. Justice O’Connor dissented, because she
was troubled by the notion of property being taken and sold to private developers. O’Connor
concluded that where economic development is the only “public use” that is offered
as justification, eminent domain is unconstitutional. Justice Thomas also dissented, finding that
the majority’s ruling conflicted with the respect that the Framers had accorded to private
property rights. The unfortunate epilogue to this case is that,
even though the City won the court battle, the Pfizer redevelopment project–along with
the new jobs and tax revenues–never came to pass. A few years after the Kelo decision,
Pfizer merged with Wyeth and left its New London facility, taking with it over a thousand
jobs. The neighborhoods slated for redevelopment are now largely vacant. In fact, the property has been used primarily as a feral cat colony. If you found this video helpful, you can explore
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