- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Private-property owners and government officials squared off yesterday in a Senate hearing over what makes up the American dream.

Mayor Eddie A. Perez of Hartford, Conn., said the American dream means letting city governments seize property under newly expanded eminent-domain powers so they can give it to private developers who promise to generate greater tax revenue with it.

Susette Kelo — whose restored pink home in New London, Conn., faces such a seizure — said the American dream means owning a home without fear that the government will take it to give to the highest bidder.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of government use of eminent-domain powers to take property and give it to private developers. The 5-4 Kelo v. City of New London decision stunned lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, many of whom noted it as another reason to push the court in a more conservative direction.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced a bill that would prohibit federal funds from being used in cases in which the expanded authority is used. Ms. Kelo applauded that bill.

“What we have now at the local, state and federal level amounts to government by the highest bidder,” she said. “That has got to stop.”

Though criticism of the Kelo decision has come from both conservatives suspicious of big government and liberals who fear the impact on the poor and minorities, only one Democrat — Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont — showed up for part of yesterday’s hearing. Most Republicans on the panel attended.

At the start of the hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said that he’d just come from a meeting at the Supreme Court attended by the author of the decision, Justice John Paul Stevens.

“I told Justice Stevens that we were having this Kelo hearing and if he has some spare time later this morning, to come on over. We’d be glad to hear from him,” Mr. Specter said. “He didn’t think that was very funny, but all the other judges laughed.”

Mr. Perez, speaking on behalf of the National League of Cities, said: “Eminent domain is a powerful economic-development tool that helps cities create jobs, grow businesses, and, most importantly, strengthen neighborhoods.”

And despite the near-universal outrage from minority groups, the Hartford mayor said eminent domain is good for blacks.

“For urban America and communities of color, in particular, homeownership is the ticket to the American dream,” Mr. Perez said. “If Congress were to pass legislation to hamstring state and local governments from using eminent domain in some of our poorest communities, I believe that we would have fewer people becoming homeowners.”

And property-rights advocates have nothing to worry about, he said.

“From [an] owner’s position, it seems to me that eminent domain … is, in a way, the most attractive way in which to have your property rearranged,” he said, noting that the owner is compensated.

Ms. Kelo said she just wants to keep her house and be left alone.

“None of us asked for any of this,” she said. “We were simply living our lives, working, taking care of our families and paying our taxes.”

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