Restraining Eminent Domain through Just Compensation: Kelo V. City of New London

Article excerpt

The Fifth Amendment provides the legal standard for eminent domain: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." (1) Thus, there are two constitutional requirements for the exercise of eminent domain: that the use be public, and that the owner receive just compensation. These restrictions were intended to deter the legislature from applying this "despotic power" (2) with undue frequency. Beginning with Berman v. Parker (3) and continuing in Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, (4) the Court granted great deference to legislative determinations of valid public uses. (5) In fact, such deference extends even to forced private-to-private transfers of property. After the Court handed down these decisions, a debate ensued over whether the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment retained any deterrent effect. Many commentators called on the Court to take a second look at the deferential standard, which it did, to those commentators' great chagrin. (6) Last Term, in Kelo v. City of New London, (7) the Supreme Court reiterated and expanded Berman and Midkiff, holding that economic development constituted a valid public purpose and that the government may legitimately take and transfer private property to another private entity to accomplish that end. (8) This ruling decisively rejected calls to limit eminent domain to transfers from private owners to a public authority. (9) Although the Kelo Court extensively examined the public use requirement, it barely discussed the just compensation requirement. (10) If the Court is determined to persist in granting great deference to the public use determinations of legislatures, the Court should reexamine just compensation, lest the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause cease to deter improper uses of eminent domain.

Since 1990, the State of Connecticut has considered the city of New London a distressed municipality. (11) By 1998, the federal government had closed a military installation employing 1,500 people and the city's population of 24,000 was its lowest since 1920. (12) In light of these circumstances, the state gave the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), a private, nonprofit entity, authority and support to implement development strategies meant to encourage economic development in the area. (13) The final integrated development plan approved by the state included eighty new residences, a $300 million Pfizer, Inc. research facility, a pedestrian riverwalk, a state park, a U.S. Coast Guard Museum, a "small urban village" including a waterfront hotel, and enough parking and infrastructure to support the new project. (14) The NLDC intended that the development plan generate tax revenue, create jobs, and improve both the aesthetic quality of the city and the leisure opportunities available for its citizens. (15) The NLDC divided the development into several parcels, most of which were acquired without incident. (16) However, the owners of fifteen properties in the development, four in Parcel 3 and eleven in Parcel 4A, refused to sell; the NLDC then initiated eminent domain proceedings against these holdouts. (17) In December 2000, Susette Kelo, along with other local property owners, brought an action in the New London Superior Court alleging that the takings violated the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment. (18) In a lengthy decision, the court granted permanent injunctive relief against the demolition of homes in Parcel 4A, (19) ruling that the intended use of the property could be accomplished without demolishing the plaintiffs' homes. (20) The court refused to grant a permanent injunction in regard to Parcel 3, but temporarily enjoined the NLDC pending final resolution of the matter. (21) In both cases, the court rejected the plaintiffs' allegations that the transfer of property to a private entity violated the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment. (22) On appeal, Justice Norcott, writing for the Connecticut Supreme Court and relying heavily on Berman and Midkiff, concluded that economic development did indeed constitute a public use. …