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February 27, 2005
Justices wary of stopping land seizure
By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism Tuesday about whether they should interfere with decisions by local officials to condemn property and turn it over to private businesses to try to boost the economy.
Susette Kelo and six other property owners in New London, Conn., are protesting the city's effort to seize their property to make way for a project that would include a hotel, conference center, offices and a marina along the Thames River.
Scott Bullock, representing the property owners, argued Tuesday that the city should not be able to force them off their land merely to make way for redevelopment to enhance city revenue. He urged the justices to rule that cities cannot seize property that is not blighted for private projects.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said New London, whose unemployment rate has been about twice the state's rate, is a "depressed community" trying to generate jobs. She suggested by her questions that the city could justify using eminent domain to redevelop 90 acres near Fort Trumbull State Park.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor questioned whether judges should "second-guess" local officials. Justice David Souter suggested a city should have broad discretion to seize property. And Justice Anthony Kennedy asked how courts should distinguish between projects that involve only private economic development and those that could benefit neighborhoods that are not blighted.
Some justices, particularly Antonin Scalia, expressed sympathy for the property owners. He noted that some of them had been on their land for most of their lives and do not want to sell for any price. "Does that count for nothing?" he asked.
Two of the nine justices were not on the bench. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who has not been in court since October, is being treated for thyroid cancer. And John Paul Stevens was not in court because his flight from Florida, where he has a home, was canceled.
The Constitution's Fifth Amendment allows government to seize property as long as "just compensation" is given and the property will be put to "public use." Past Supreme Court decisions have given local officials wide latitude to use the power of eminent domain.
In the Connecticut case, the state Supreme Court rejected a challenge from the property owners and endorsed New London's plan for the project, which would be near a new Pfizer research plant. The project would generate more than 1,000 jobs, the city says.
Wesley Horton, an attorney for the city, said elected officials should be able to decide the best "public use" for land, and that elections provide a check on such officials.Posted by Coalition Webbies at February 27, 2005 03:56 PM