Kelo Forever

front end loader demolishing a house

In 2005, a property-rights case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Entitled Kelo v. City of New London, the case represented the last-ditch attempt by a small group of middle-class Americans to save their middle-class homes from an eminent domain seizure. Led by a nurse and single mother named Suzette Kelo, none of the six plaintiffs was the sort to spend a lot of time in the highest court in the land. And their opponents made the case an almost blatant metaphor for David and Goliath. Standing opposite the everyman plaintiffs was the city of New London, Conn. And standing behind New London was the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Thanks to a sweetheart deal proffered by a city nearly desperate for incoming capital, Pfizer was the incoming tenant of a tract of land just across the water from the Kelo homestead.

In the eternally infamous decision, the court’s liberal wing ruled in favor of the government-industrial complex. At the time, the decision sparked a brushfire of outrage amongst the politically active segment of the population; but the blaze was unable to breach the walls of American indifference. Of course, the Kelo decision hardly marked the first time our government stepped on our fellow citizens’ necks. But Kelo represented a new low. Kelo wasn’t a ruling extending freedom. Kelo was a ruling that specifically limited freedom. And it didn’t take place back in the days before 24-hour news channels and 24-second news cycles. Kelo happened against the backdrop of the Internet age. And we ignored it.

The court had not entertained an “eminent domain” case for more than 20 years. With Kelo, for the first time since the dawn of the digital age, the government blatantly abrogated the Bill of Rights — specifically the 5th Amendment’s Takings Clause — on behalf of the promise of corporate cash; and the people let them get away with it. Moreover, the government-industrial complex conclusively learned that outrage, even over the most egregious crimes the State might commit, has a definitive shelf life.

In the most recent edition of The Weekly Standard, writer Charlotte Allen presented ‘Kelo’ Revisited.” Allen reveals the postscript to the Kelo group’s heartbreaking saga is sadder than Justin Bieber in the county lockup’s general population. After years of legal warfare, crippling financial losses, endless hours of time and effort, the city of New London and its accomplices have turned Kelo, et al.’s homes into… nothing.

There’s nothing there. The land deemed so prime for a conference/condo/recreational/retail/riverwalk/tourist trap/airbrushed T-shirt mega-center remains little more than scrub pine and seagulls. Pfizer ended up canceling its expansion plans and left New London with nary a little blue pill as a parting gift. The construction company hired to develop the seized land failed to secure financing and hightailed it back to Boston. Government wanted Kelo’s land. Government got it. And then government left it sitting there. In the Kelo context, government is a spoiled baby — albeit a spoiled baby whose tantrums can involve drone strikes.

And we’re still paying for it in spades. Kelo was the go code for government to roll heavy across our Constitutional landscape. From Kelo came the unmitigated gall of every fraudulent, crony-capitalist, government abuse of power since. The bank and auto bailouts, the “green” energy scams, the gunrunning disasters, the terrorism cover-ups, the domestic spying, the Internal Revenue Service bullying and Obamacare all got their green lights from Kelo.

I might be overestimating Kelo’s import. Perhaps Allen caught me on a particularly impressionable day. But I can’t help but note the striking rise in unapologetic government intrusion into private life in just less than a decade since. Nine years after Kelo, a simple land-grab seems almost quaint.

–Ben Crystal

Personal Liberty

Ben Crystal

is a 1993 graduate of Davidson College and has burned the better part of the last two decades getting over the damage done by modern-day higher education. He now lives in Savannah, Ga., where he has hosted an award-winning radio talk show and been featured as a political analyst for television. Currently a principal at Saltymoss Productions—a media company specializing in concept television and campaign production, speechwriting and media strategy—Ben has written numerous articles on the subjects of municipal authoritarianism, the economic fallacy of sin taxes and analyses of congressional abuses of power.

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