Eminent domain ruling surprises area mayors

Published 5:00 am Friday, June 24, 2005

Area mayors were stunned by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursdaythat permits local governments to seize people’s homes andbusinesses against their will for private development.

“I’m really surprised at that decision,” said Brookhaven MayorBob Massengill. “I did not even know that was being debated.”

Monticello Mayor David Nichols agreed.

“I think that’s giving government too much power,” he said. “Idisagree with that ruling. I’m just dumbfounded that this was eventaken up by the Supreme Court.”

Despite the court’s ruling, Massengill and Nichols said theydoubted Brookhaven or Monticello would ever see eminent domain lawsused so forcefully here.

“It would be hard for me to see the town of Monticello ever usingthat power,” Nichols said. “I believe in a municipality’s right togrow, but not by trampling the common citizen’s rights to property.That’s why we have public domain laws.”

The 5-4 ruling came as a defeat for residents in Connecticut whosehomes are slated for destruction to make room for an office complexand recreation opportunities.

The residents had argued that cities have no right to take privateland except for projects with a clear public use, such as roads andschools, or to revitalize “blighted” areas.

The city, New London, claimed the eminent domain seizures fellunder the cap of economic development. City officials have plans touse the property for a riverfront hotel, river walk, health club,offices, and a museum. A portion of the property, owned by thecity, has already been turned into a city park.

The Fort Trumbull area of New London under dispute occupies 90acres on a peninsula that juts into the Thames River. The areacomprises approximately 115 privately-owned properties, as well asthe 32 acres of land formerly occupied by a naval facility.Trumbull State Park now occupies 18 of those 32 acres.

At issue was the scope of the Fifth Amendment, which allowsgovernments to take private property through eminent domain if theland is for “public use.”

In past rulings, “public use” was employed to describe projects tobenefit the general public, such as roads and schools. Governmentsare prohibited from seizing private property from one person togive to another.

Dissenting judges, however, said that is precisely what the courtagreed to do Thursday when it ruled in favor of New London. Part ofthe property seized would be used to build office and researchspaces for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc.

“Today the court abandons this long-held, basic limitation ongovernment power. Under the banner of economic development, allprivate property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferredto another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded … inthe process,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her dissentingopinion.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in a separate dissent, supportedO’Connor’s claims that the new ruling would make the Public UseClause ineffectual.

“Today’s decision is simply the latest in a string of our casesconstruing the Public Use Clause to be a virtual nullity, withoutthe slightest nod to its original meaning,” he wrote. “In my view,the Public Use Clause, originally understood, is a meaningful limiton the government’s eminent domain power. Our cases have strayedfrom the Clause’s original meaning, and I would reconsiderthem.”

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court’s majority, saidthe court had long been moving toward more loosely interpreting the”public use” word usage.

“While the city is not planning to open the condemned land – atleast not in its entirety – to use by the general public, thiscourt long ago rejected any literal requirement that condemnedproperty be put into use for the … public,” Stevens wrote.”Rather, it has embraced the broader and more naturalinterpretation of public use as ‘public purpose.'”

He wrote that the residents’ arguments that the city would not beusing the land for the general benefit of the public is “supportedby neither precedent nor logic. Promoting economic development is atraditional and long accepted governmental function, and there isno principled way of distinguishing it from the other publicpurposes the court has recognized.”

O’Connor argued that supporting New London would blur the linesbetween when governments should or should not use eminentdomain.

“Where is the line between ‘public’ and ‘private’ property use?”she asks. “We give considerable deference to legislatures’determinations about what governmental activities will advantagethe public. But were the political branches the sole arbiters ofthe public-private distinction, the Public Use Clause would amountto little more than hortatory fluff.”

Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyerjoined Stevens in his opinion supporting New London.

The liberal judges were joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, whowrote his own opinion, in rejecting the principle of individualproperty rights. Kennedy feared a small group of homeowners couldblock rebuilding efforts that benefit the city through added jobsand more tax revenue for social programs.

O’Connor argued that the residents had justifiable concerns inthwarting the eminent domain proceedings.

These “petitioners are not hold-outs; they do not seek increasedcompensation, and none are opposed to new development in the area.Theirs is an objection in principle: They claim that the (city’s)proposed use for their confiscated property is not a ‘public’ onefor purposes of the Fifth Amendment,” she wrote.

Under the ruling, residents will still be entitled to “justcompensation” for their homes as provided under the FifthAmendment.