Friday, June 24, 2005

Kelo v New London

There was a pretty profound ruling in the US Supreme Court yesterday where, in Kelo v. New London (oral arguments can be found here), the Court ruled by a 5-4 majority that the seizure of private property (subject to compensation) by a local government, in order to hand it over to other private parties, is constitutional. Taking property for 'public use,' against the will of the property owner, is uncontroversially constitutional: the question here was whether property might truly be taken for 'public use' if it is to be handed over to a private developer.

For the majority on the court, this was really a competence question: it is not for the Supreme Court to rule on local governments' development plans or the manner in which those plans are to be carried out. For the dissenters, such as Sandra Day O'Connor, however, the ruling means that the homes of the poor will be demolished in order to make way for the ambitions of the wealthy and the well-connected.1

As for me, I really haven't made up my mind. I suspect that, while it isn't a court's place to rule on general policies, it is their place to ensure that everyone has some degree of equality before the law. O'Connor is correct in that this dilutes the property rights of the poor and gives the powerful some degree of sovereignty over them. Which is precisely the sort of thing democratic institutions should be in the business of preventing.

Further coverage in the FT (subs required) and the LA Times.

1 Interesting, isn't it, how the left-right split works here. I suspect it would be the other way around in Europe, with liberals (in the American sense) concerned about handing property over to business rather than the decision-making sovereingty of government and with conservatives not seeing a problem with the inclusion of business in government planning without so much regard for the integrity of property rights. Maybe I'm wrong though: I've never heard of a similar case. If you'd care to enlighten me!

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