Property Ruling Angers Groups of All Kinds
The 5-4 Kelo v. New London decision may have split the Supreme Court, but it’s drawn virtually universal opposition. First, the religious right fears for their places of worship:
In the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago in favor of using eminent domain for development that increases a city’s tax base, many Christian groups are warning supporters that the tax-exempt status of churches may make them targets, often citing the attempt to take a plot of land from the Cottonwood Christian Center in Los Alamitos.
Many legal experts say the fears are unfounded, and a federal appeals court ultimately blocked the condemnation of Cottonwood’s property. But calling the decision evidence that the court is out of touch, several Christian groups have seized on the ruling as a potent new motivation to fight for a conservative to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is retiring.
Second, as John Fund observes, civil rights groups fear for their neighborhoods:
In 1954 the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. But that same year it also ruled in Berman v. Parker that government’s power of eminent domain could be used to seize property in order to tear down “blighted” areas.
It soon became clear that too often urban renewal really meant “Negro removal,” as cities increasingly razed stable neighborhoods to benefit powerful interests. That helps explain why 50 years later so many minority groups are furious at the Supreme Court’s decision last month to build on the Berman precedent and give government a green light to take private property that isn’t “blighted” if it can be justified in the name of economic development.
Within a week of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Kelo v. New London, Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and the longest-serving member of the Congressional Black Caucus, pronounced himself “shocked” to be joining with conservatives in backing a bill to bar federal funds from being used to make improvements on any lands seized for private development. He noted that the NAACP, Operation PUSH and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights all believe “this court opinion makes it too easy for private property to be taken and [this is a practice] that has been used historically to target the poor, people of color and the elderly.” The measure blocking federal funds passed the House by 231-189. A companion resolution condemning the Kelo decision was approved 365-33. Only 10 of the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus and only two members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus voted against the latter measure.
As Fund later suggests, Justice Clarence Thomas actually anticipated such opposition in his dissent.
When Kelo came out, the main theme revolved around private ownership. See, for instance, this Christian Science Monitor article, which describes homes, trailer parks, and family investments. But, as time passes, the decision is evolving into a symbol of community definition. Will the government destroy the values and the composition of our neighborhood even if it doesn’t seize my property?
It’s a subtle distinction that has considerable political ramifications. Most notably, grassroots mobilization becomes easier to do, which in turn raises the odds of passing seizure restrictions.