Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Look back in anger: The Kelo ruling, 3 years later

Monday marked a dark anniversary for private property rights in the United States of Amnesia; it’s been 3 years since the U.S. Supreme Court, in Kelo vs. New London – the Dred Scott decision of our time – gave cities the green light to seize private parcels that aren’t generating adequate tax revenue, or which stand in the way of more lucrative redevelopment projects. The Supremes celebrated the anniversary by declining an engraved invitation to revisit the case, and to right this obvious wrong, leaving the city of New York free to bulldoze properties that stand in the way of a new pro basketball arena. Justice Scalia reportedly wanted to hear the case; the others opted to let sleeping dogs lie.

The Kelo ruling thus-far has had a mixed impact. Many states, responding to the general public’s revulsion at the ruling, have taken matters into their own hands by trying to tighten up rules surrounding such “takings,” much to the displeasure of local politicos and professional planners, who have no qualms about intimidating and dislocating anyone who stands in the way of their grand “urban redevelopment” schemes. Yet many of those “reforms” have loopholes large enough to drive a bulldozer through. As well, there’s been a blurring of important distinctions in the public’s mind, in my opinion, between legitimate and illegitimate uses of eminent domain, since few people would argue that these powers should never, under any circumstances, be used.

Reluctantly using eminent domain to construct a major water project or a school, or some other project that benefits the public broadly, is arguably legitimate. Taking a person’s business or home and handing it to a private developer promising the city a tax windfall is not just an illegitimate use of power, in my view, but a crime.

Broadly speaking, Kelo resulted in a property rights revival of sorts. But that revival's sustainability is open to question, since the interests that stand to benefit from Kelo – developers, politicos and planners -- are well organized and highly motivated, while the general public, unless roused to action by some outrage, tends to doze off. And the bulldozing goes on. Stories can be found in newspapers almost weekly about another Kelo-like case.

Here’s an overview of Kelo decision published in Reason -- http://www.reason.com/news/show/127128.html -- and a slightly heartwarming/slightly heartbreaking story about how the little pink house at the center of the storm is being saved and relocated, as an unofficial shrine to America’s lost property rights: http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5j5_PvUZVe0WDoE0BEDoDA6VyAuVQD91ELUOO0

Finally, there’s an interesting story about the impact eminent domain abuse has had on one of my favorite American cities, Baltimore, Maryland: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/baltimore_city/bal-md.domain24jun24,0,1428335.story.

Read 'em and weep.

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