Supreme Court justices expressed serious doubts Tuesday whether the court has the authority to protect some residents in New London, Conn., who face losing their homes to the city's ambitious program for economic revitalization.
Susette Kelo and several other homeowners filed a lawsuit after city officials announced plans to bulldoze their residences to clear the way for a riverfront hotel, health club and offices. The residents refused to move, arguing it was an unconstitutional taking of their property.
The case's outcome will have significant implications for so-called eminent domain actions.
Scott Bullock, representing the neighborhood residents, argued that government cannot take private property from one owner and provide it to another just because the new commercial project will give a boost to the city's finances.
"More than tax revenue was at stake," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "The town had gone down and down" economically.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor questioned whether the homeowners were asking the court to "second-guess" the power of eminent domain.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is battling thyroid cancer, did not attend the arguments and will be absent for the next two weeks. He has not attended arguments since October.
There have been over 10,000 instances in recent years of private property being threatened with condemnation or actually condemned by government for private use, according to the Institute for Justice. The group represents the New London residents who filed the case.
The issue revolves around whether a government is serving a public purpose when it uses its power of eminent domain to take land. The Fifth Amendment prohibits taking private property for public use without just compensation. The New London case is not about the amount of compensation being offered, but whether the government can take the property at all.
Over the years, the Supreme Court has deferred to the decision-making of elected state and local officials.
The court said in 1954 that it is legal for urban renewal to encompass non-blighted commercial buildings in a blighted neighborhood. In 1984, the court upheld Hawaii's land reform law that broke the grip of large landowners, with property being taken and then resold to others.
More recently, many cities and towns have been accused of abusing their authority, razing nice homes to make way for parking lots for casinos and other tax-producing businesses.
New London, a town of less than 26,000, once was a center of the whaling industry and later became a manufacturing hub. More recently the city has suffered the kind of economic woes afflicting urban areas across the country, with losses of residents and jobs. City leaders say the private development will generate tax revenue and improve the local economy.
"The undisputed facts regarding the steady deterioration of New London's economy from the 1970s onwards demonstrate the dire need for such a development project," the city told the court.
The New London neighborhood that would be swept away includes Victorian-era houses and small businesses that in some instances have been owned by several generations of families.
Among the New London residents in the case is a couple in their 80s who have lived in the same home for over 50 years.
City officials envision a commercial development that would attract tourists to the Thames riverfront, complementing an adjoining Pfizer Corp. research center and a proposed Coast Guard museum.
The case is Kelo v. City of New London, 04-108.
The Day: www.theday.com