Get Off My Lawn: Eminent Domain Remains Exploited

A message painted on the side of a home in New London, Connecticut — the town at the center of the  Kelo v. City of New London  case ( Image )

A message painted on the side of a home in New London, Connecticut — the town at the center of the Kelo v. City of New London case (Image)


Conceptions of private property, and the protections of such property, underpin the fundamental elements of classical liberal governance - the kind we enjoy in the United States. Generally, there is consensus among the Enlightenment thinkers who inspired the U.S. Constitution that private property is one of the most critical rights held by a member of a free society. Seeing as much, it is of the utmost importance to consider the circumstances in which the government— the entity that guarantees its citizens’ right to own property— suspends this right by expropriating privately-held land. The process by which this occurs, known as “eminent domain,” originates from the Latin term dominium eminens, or “supreme lordship.” It is this idea that because the government is the central, all-powerful authority, it necessarily holds the power by which rights can be both granted and suspended. The ways in which eminent domain is used in America, however, are even more questionable than the principles behind it.

In the United States, the government is constitutionally mandated to meet two requirements before it can legally appropriate private land. First, it must provide fair compensation to the owner, an amount typically determined by the market value of the land and other secondary metrics. Second, the land expropriated must hold some degree of “public utility.” Generally, the term “public utility” calls to mind things such as roads, bridges, or schools. However, courts across the U.S. have generally adopted a flexible interpretation of “public use,” often ruling that “public use” is whatever the legislature decides it is. “Public use” has been recently expanded to include economic development projects, which has ushered in countless cases where private firms have attempted to pressure state legislatures into exploiting the power of eminent domain to transfer private property from citizens to corporations.

Perhaps the most infamous case of transferring private property to corporation using the principle of eminent domain was debated in Kelo v. City of New London. This case established economic development as a reasonable standard for “public use.” In the case, Susette Kelo, a resident of New London, Connecticut, sued the city in an attempt to prevent it from exploiting eminent domain to seize her property. The city wanted her land for a development project orchestrated by the private pharmaceutical company Pfizer. The Supreme Court ultimately granted Pfizer permission to bulldoze entire neighborhoods, leaving local families homeless and destitute, all in the name of “progress,” — or, more specifically, in the name of a new manufacturing plant. Despite the intense legal battle and its unsavory conclusion for homeowners, the project fell through — leaving many residents of the city of New London homeless with no “economic development” to show for it.

Eminent domain was originally intended to be used by the government to expedite the construction of crucial infrastructure. Now, it has been manipulated into a means by which corporations can circumvent the wishes of private citizens by wielding what should be the singular power of the government. Circumstances in which a corporation reaps obscenely concentrated benefits from the appropriation of private property is a cardinal abuse of the government’s authority. If government is to be the institution charged with the protection of the rights of its citizens, there is nothing more heretical, nor hypocritical, than the suspension of a citizen’s property rights in favor of corporate interests. In its current form, eminent domain is perhaps the most vile example of government overreach at the behest of corporate money. Its contemporary manifestation represents the worst values of a doctrine that tenuously operates at the intersection of citizens’ rights and the government’s responsibilities.