Supreme Court Rules Cities May Seize Homes for Private Use

Supreme Court Rules Cities May Seize Homes (WaPo)

The Supreme Court today effectively expanded the right of local governments to seize private property under eminent domain, ruling that people’s homes and businesses — even those not considered blighted — can be taken against their will for private development if the seizure serves a broadly defined “public use.”

In a 5-4 decision, the court upheld the ability of New London, Conn., to seize people’s homes to make way for an office, residential and retail complex supporting a new $300 million research facility of the Pfizer pharmaceutical company. The city had argued that the project served a public use within the meaning of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution because it would increase tax revenues, create jobs and improve the local economy. A group of homeowners in New London’s Fort Trumbull area had fought the city’s attempt to impose eminent domain, arguing that their property could be seized only to serve a clear public use such as building roads or schools or to eliminate blight. The homeowners, some of whom had lived in their house for decades, also argued that the public would benefit from the proposed project only if it turned out to be successful, making the “public use” requirement subject to the eventual performance of the private business venture.

The Fifth Amendment also requires “just compensation” for the owners, but that was not an issue in the case decided today because the homeowners did not want to give up their property at any price.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said the case turned on the question of whether New London’s development plan served a “public purpose.” He added, “Without exception, our cases have defined that concept broadly, reflecting our longstanding policy of deference to legislative judgments in this field.


Dissenting were justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, as well as Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. In a strongly worded dissenting opinion, O’Connor wrote that the majority’s decision overturns a long-held principle that eminent domain cannot be used simply to transfer property from one private owner to another. “Today the Court abandons this long-held, basic limitation on government power,” she wrote. “Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded — i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public — in the process.”

The effect of the decision, O’Connor said, “is to wash out any distinction between private and public use of property — and thereby effectively to delete the words “for public use” from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.”

High court OKs personal property seizures (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.


“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.”

O’Connor gets it exactly right. While I would generally prefer blighted property be replaced with shiny new condos and other things productive, that’s not a proper role for government, let alone government coercion. If developers want land, they should have to pay for it.


Steve Bainbridge: “So much for private property rights. Kennedy and Souter voted with the majority, proving once again just how essential it is that Bush pick somebody reliably – and permanently – conservative when there’s an opening.”

Glenn Reynolds: “OUR STATIST SUPREME COURT STRIKES AGAIN: They’ve had quite a run lately.”


Ed Morrissey: “This puts the entire notion of property rights into jeopardy. Now cities can literally force people off their land in order to simply increase their tax base, which is all that New London accomplished in this smelly manuever.”

Roger Ailes retorts, “Just remember. When you read all the Bushlicking bloggers piss and moan about the New London decision — They’re all frauds.”

Why? Because the Texas Rangers benefitted from a public taking of land to build their Arlington stadium in 1990. Presumably, then, Lefties are now in favor of taking property away from poor people in order to give it to billionaire fatcats? I’m confused.

Update: Bryan at AWS has rounded up dozens of blogger reactions.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jay says:

    A while ago when I saw you hand’t posted on this yet, the following exchange was heard here:

    Me: “James must be in a meeting.”
    Deb: “I was thinking the same thing!”

  2. Steve Verdon says:

    Dang it James!

    I was working on this…oh well. I should get two post if not more, IMO.

  3. ALS says:

    Someone please tell me: How on God’s green earth is this Constitutional? It’s bad enough when people are forced to sell their homes to make way for “roads” for new housing developments, but this is absolutely outrageous. This is taking eminent domain entirely too far. Up until this point, I’ve been reluctant to jump on the “Supreme Court is out of control” band wagon, but here I go… The Supreme Court is completely out of control. All Americans should be outraged at this erosion of our property rights. The chipping away at the Constitution continues…

  4. Jim Peterson says:


  5. elgodosimp says:

    This is an issue that should unite all principled liberals and conservatives, as well as any American who believes in the Constitution. The task at hand is to mobilize pressure on state and local governments to restrict their use of eminent domain. Every homeowner in the country should write their elected officials today to demand that economic development and tax farming be excluded from the definition of public use. Every candidate for local office should be forced to foreswear ever taking someone’s home to give to a developer.

  6. Isn’t this why we celebrate the fourth of July. To prevent exactly this sort of high handedness?Now will I have to learn the nazi salute as well?