Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A year ago this week, in Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court handed a legal justification to towns and cities seeking expanded eminent-domain powers. The ruling allowed them to seize unblighted property — under the guise of eminent domain — for what they consider to be preferential, revenue-enhancing purposes. The ruling itself was terrible news for property rights, seeming as it did to prioritize tax revenue over the Fifth Amendment.

But since then, the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction. Most significantly, an unprecedented property-rights movement has emerged to force state, local and national leaders to act.

At the state and local level, ballot initiatives to curb eminent-domain abuse are expected in no fewer than six states this November. Several states have already tightened their laws, with legislation pending in several more. A note of caution lies with the fact that many developers and urban planners took heart in the Kelo ruling and have since been pushing, often outside the headlines, for greater encroachment. But activists and citizens, aware of the dangers unlike ever before, have ensured a chilly climate for overreaching eminent domain.

Innovative groups like the Institute for Justice and the Castle Coalition headline the activism nationally with one foot in the states and the other in Washington. Their message is unmistakable.

At the national level, both the House and Senate have considered laws to curb eminent-domain abuse. Few if any lawmakers want to be seen as defending eminent domain, which has become a cussword.

This is not to say that eminent domain itself has ebbed. One key test will be the Ohio Supreme Court’s expected decision shortly on a similar case in Norwood, a suburb of Cincinnati. Norwood seized an unblighted neighborhood by eminent domain and the case, expected to be ruled upon this summer, is being watched around the country, among other cases of import.

Meanwhile, in a turn of ironies, the news is not good for Susette Kelo, the New London homeowner whose challenge sparked the movement. Earlier this month, the New London City Council finally voted 5-2 to evict Mrs. Kelo from her modest pink Fort Trumbull Victorian, which she has so far refused to give up. She will likely lose her home by summer’s end.

This is a pyrrhic victory, however. New London’s bid to oust Mrs. Kelo has prompted an unprecedented backlash from people who want to stop governments from appropriating private property. That’s something to be positively cheery about.

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