The Kelo backlash

Passing legislation limiting the government’s ability to snatch private property should not be a heavy lift — especially if lawmakers listen to their constituents. That’s because voter attitudes following the recent Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. New London, greatly expanding the government’s power of eminent domain, strongly weigh in for congressional action.

That is one of the results of the most recent American Survey of 800 registered voters nationwide, conducted July 14-17.

The 5-4 Kelo decision holds that government seizures of private property are lawful even if the public purpose is vaguely defined, such as increasing a city’s tax base. To paraphrase Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s dissent: Watch out Motel 6, here comes the Ritz. Or put another way, property spoils now go to the highest taxpayer — a wonderful outcome for governments with voracious spending appetites.

A swift and dramatic backlash is underway in the states, several of which have already passed laws limiting the power of eminent domain. The House of Representatives also recently adopted a nonbinding resolution criticizing the decision, and lawmakers introduced other legislation in both houses of Congress overturning the ruling at the federal level. Congress will continue to press for legislative action upon its return after Labor Day, with leadership aides predicting it’s not a question of if, but when, lawmakers sack the high-court decision.

Congressional action gets plenty of sympathy from constituents. Sixty-eight percent of registered voters favor legislative limits on the government’s ability to take private property away from owners. Public support for limiting the power of eminent domain is robust and cuts across demographic and partisan groups. Sixty-two percent of self-identified Democrats, 74 percent of independents and 70 percent of Republicans support limits.

Few issues in recent memory have mobilized citizens against a Supreme Court decision with such ferocity. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform told The Economist recently that “Twenty years from now, people will look back at Kelo the way people look back at Roe v. Wade,” as a sort of tipping point, rallying conservatives. If these numbers hold, this “Kelo” may have broken the camel’s back.

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