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Kelo v. City of New London

Decided June 23, 2005

Issue: Eminent Domain – When is the taking of private property for “public use”?

The City of New London, Connecticut approved a development plan designed to revitalize the City and its ailing economy. The plan included transferring the land and homes of private citizens to a private corporation for the development of, among other things, a hotel, restaurants, a mall and a marina. The City purchased the majority of the property needed for the project from willing sellers. Several residents in the project area, however, opposed the City’s plans and refused to sell. The City then began condemnation proceedings against these unwilling sellers. The unwilling sellers brought an action against the City claiming that the taking of their properties constituted a violation of the “public use” restriction of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. The Fifth Amendment provides constitutional protection for private citizens with regard to the right to private property. This right may only be violated upon need to take the property for “public use.” [The Fifth Amendment reads in part: “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.”]

In one of the most controversial rulings of 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision in favor of the proposed takings. The Court held that the takings were valid because the properties were being taken in the public interest and for public use. Even though the properties were to be transferred to a private corporation, the takings were not for the benefit of a particular private party or for a “particular class of identifiable individuals.” Rather, the properties were being taken for a “carefully considered development plan” for the benefit of the public. In affirming the decision, the Court stated that “[p]romoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted function of government.”

Additionally, the Court rejected the argument that the City be required to show a “reasonable certainty” that the proposed public benefits would actually occur under the development plan. The Court held that determination of what constitutes a public need sufficient for taking a property is best determined by the legislative authority involved, not by the Court.

This decision has inflamed public opinion nationwide. Since the June ruling, public backlash has been swift and powerful. Property owners have demanded to be heard and have pushed for laws to prevent takings of this type. Several states have already passed laws limiting the power of eminent domain. And lawmakers in more than half the states, and hundreds of municipalities, have introduced legislation against such takings.

To read the full opinion, click here.