High court OKs personal property seizures
Majority: Local officials know how best to help cities
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that local governments may seize people's homes and businesses -- even against their will -- for private economic development.
It was a decision fraught with huge implications for a country with many areas, particularly the rapidly growing urban and suburban areas, facing countervailing pressures of development and property ownership rights.
The 5-4 ruling represented a defeat for some Connecticut residents whose homes are slated for destruction to make room for an office complex. They argued that cities have no right to take their land except for projects with a clear public use, such as roads or schools, or to revitalize blighted areas.
As a result, cities have wide power to bulldoze residences for projects such as shopping malls and hotel complexes to generate tax revenue.
Local officials, not federal judges, know best in deciding whether a development project will benefit the community, justices said.
"The city has carefully formulated an economic development that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including -- but by no means limited to -- new jobs and increased tax revenue," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
He was joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
At issue was the scope of the Fifth Amendment, which allows governments to take private property through eminent domain if the land is for "public use."
Susette Kelo and several other homeowners in a working-class neighborhood in New London, Connecticut, filed suit after city officials announced plans to raze their homes for a riverfront hotel, health club and offices.
New London officials countered that the private development plans served a public purpose of boosting economic growth that outweighed the homeowners' property rights, even if the area wasn't blighted.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has been a key swing vote on many cases before the court, issued a stinging dissent. She argued that cities should not have unlimited authority to uproot families, even if they are provided compensation, simply to accommodate wealthy developers.
The lower courts had been divided on the issue, with many allowing a taking only if it eliminates blight.
"Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random," O'Connor wrote. "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms."
She was joined in her opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, as well as Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
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