Property Rights Foundation of America®

RISE UP

A Call to Regain Private Property Rights
After Kelo v. New London

By Carol W. LaGrasse
July 2005

The United States Supreme Court majority made the worst ruling against private property rights in my lifetime on June 23, 2005. The Court said that government has the constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause to condemn property belonging to a private individual to transfer it to another private person as long as the government has a plan that justifies the eminent domain on the basis of economic development, where the public will be benefited by increased tax revenues.

Justice John Paul Steven's decision for the majority in Susette Kelo v. City of New London goes against the historic Supreme Court rulings, which state unequivocally that government cannot condemn property belonging to person A to transfer it to person B. Previous Supreme Court rulings had only slightly blurred the edges of the requirement that eminent domain be for a public use, in accord with the Fifth Amendment, which states, "Nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." The majority in the Kelo decision decided that the words "public use" and "public purpose" are interchangeable, opening up a Pandora's box of reverse-Robin Hood eminent domain unless the people rise up and obviate this ruling at the state and local level.

Homeowners and small business people— and all those who believe in freedom—should be inspired by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's dissent to right a great wrong done by the Supreme Court.

"Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms." - Justice O'Connor

This is a time for action. Each of us, to the degree that it is humanly possible, should take on the task of counteracting the Kelo v. New London decision. Everyone can do something to defend private property rights at this time.

A letter to a State Senator or Assembly Member does not have to be typewritten. In fact, one legislator told me that hand-written, heartfelt short letters are powerful. Telephone calls to the Capitol office or calls to the local district office matter. Write down the name of the staff member who takes your call and make sure that the staffer gets your name and address. If you cannot find the telephone number in the phone book, call the reference desk at the local library. The librarian will be happy to look this up for you.

Tell your state legislator's staff member—or the legislator, if you can have his or her ear — that you and many other people you know are angry at the Supreme Court Kelo v. New London decision. Tell the person who speaks to you that you want the legislator to restore the property rights taken away by the decision!

Telephone again soon and insist on seeing a draft bill with the legislator's name as a co-sponsor to protect property owners from the radical application of eminent domain to take private property from one person to transfer it to another. Write a follow-up letter. Also write to the governor. If the answer is not satisfactory to you, write a letter to the editor of the local daily and weekly newspapers. Call the local talk radio show. If your legislators are sponsoring a good bill, type a letter to the editor in support of their action, and get on the telephone again to find out the status of the bill. A bill that dies in the legislature is of no help to private property owners.

Do not let the legislator off the hook with excuses, such as, "I am an upstate legislator, and all the urban members of the legislature will outvote me." This excuse is false. Last year's successful eminent domain reform bill in ultra-liberal New York State was led by a Democrat, Assembly Member Richard L. Brodsky of Westchester County, which is in the metropolitan area, leading a bipartisan team with Republican Senator Vincent L. Liebell. The NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Congress of Racial Equality supported Susette Kelo in court. Urban blacks across the country have suffered as their neighborhoods were destroyed by eminent domain.

Every state legislature should pass eminent domain reform to prohibit condemnation of private property belonging to one person to bestow it on another private person. The bill should not allow justification of eminent domain on the basis that the government agency has an economic development plan, as wrongly allowed by the Supreme Court.

Citizen involvement is the key to convincing legislatures to enact reforms to counteract the Kelo decision. You can act independently, because each citizen will be part of a groundswell of people across each state and across the country, working alone and with their groups to get bills passed. However, if you can bring in your friends, and the organization you belong to—any kind of civic organization, club, or religious group—that can be especially important. There is no better way to be heard than to bring a good-sized group of people (cars full of people or even a busload) to your legislator's office!

The local government where you live—town, village, city, or county—should pass a resolution pledging to never use eminent domain to take property from one person to transfer it to another private person, even for economic development. An effective way to influence the legislature is for the local government to pass a resolution petitioning the legislature to prohibit eminent domain for this purpose. PRFA has published a model resolution to help your local government start composing its own resolution.

There it is: telephone calls, faxes, letters, follow-up calls, letters, and visits to your members of the state legislature; letters to the editor and call-ins to radio talk shows; letters and visits from your organization to the legislature; and local government resolutions. Our goal must be that a groundswell of local governments and every state pass laws prohibiting eminent domain to take property from any private owner to transfer it to another private party.

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