Kelo v. New London

Following is the case brief for Kelo v. New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005)

Case Summary of Kelo v. New London:

  • The city of New London, CT, approved an economic development plan to revitalize the community.  Although no part of the development area was blighted, it was proposed that the government use eminent domain to obtain properties from those unwilling to sell. Landowners unwilling to sell sued in state court.
  • The state trial court allowed eminent domain for some properties.
  • The Connecticut Supreme Court found all of the takings valid under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed.  It held that economic development is a valid “public use” to justify a taking under the Fifth Amendment.

Kelo v. New London Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

In 1990, a Connecticut State agency declared the city of New London a “distressed municipality,” due to decades of economic decline.  In light of that, New London approved a revitalization development plan in 2000.  The plan was meant to bring economic life to the downtown and waterfront area, bring 1,000 jobs to the city, and increase tax and other revenues.  In implementing the plan, the city bought land in the development area from willing land owners, and proposed using the power of eminent domain to obtain the land from owners unwilling to sell their property.

Petitioner Susette Kelo was unwilling to sell because she made substantial renovations to her home and enjoyed her view of the water.  Eight other property owners were similarly unwilling to sell because they had been in their homes for long periods of time.  Their properties were being condemned solely because they were located in the development area, not because they were blighted or in poor condition.

Procedural History:

  • Kelo and the eight other property owners sued New London in state court.  They alleged that the taking of their property violated the “public use” restriction of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.
  • After a 7-day bench trial, the court disallowed the taking of some properties, but allowed the taking of others.
  • On appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that all of the city’s proposed takings were valid.  It held that economic development qualified as a “public use” under the Fifth Amendment.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does the goal of economic development qualify as a “public use” to justify a taking of private property under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause?  Yes.

Judgment:

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Connecticut is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The goal of economic development, even where private property is taken by eminent domain for private development, is a valid “public use” in the public interest within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

Reasoning:

  • “Public use” really means “public purpose.”

It is clear that New London could not take someone’s land to confer a private benefit on a particular private party.  However, in this case, the condemnations at issue are not geared toward a particular class of individuals.  Rather, they are part of a carefully considered economic development plan.  Moreover, the Court has long rejected the notion that something subject to eminent domain must literally be used by the public.  The current understanding of the Takings Clause is that the power must be exercised to serve a “public purpose.”

  • New London’s plan serves a “public purpose” and deserves the Court’s deference. 

In this case, the economic development plan is meant to serve the public purpose of revitalizing New London, which makes it valid under the Fifth Amendment.  That conclusion is further supported by the fact that the Court should give deference to local officials because they know best how to address the distressed nature of their municipality.

  • Petitioners’ call for a bright-line rule runs counter to Court precedent.

Petitioners argue that the Court should establish a bright-line rule, stating that economic development can never satisfy the “public use” restriction.  The Court’s previous cases on the subject contradict such a rule, given that economic development has always been a government function.  In addition, the argument that the municipality should demonstrate a “reasonable certainty” of economic success in a development plan before taking property runs counter to precedent, and asks the Court to improperly second-guess a plan of action.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Kennedy):

The Court appropriately employs what is essentially a rational basis review of New London’s plan, i.e., whether the plan is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.  There is no reason here to depart from previous cases that begin with a baseline presumption that the government action is valid under the Fifth Amendment.  While there may be a case that requires a presumption of invalidity (when favoritism or abuse is obvious), this is not that case.

Dissenting Opinion (O’Connor):

The Court is abandoning the long-held principle that a law that takes property from A and gives it to B is against all reason and justice.  Under the guise of economic development, a government can now take property from one private person and give it to another, so long as the property is upgraded in some way.  The Court is essentially wiping out the words “for public use” out of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

Dissenting Opinion (Thomas):

The Court has replaced the Fifth Amendment’s words “public use” to “public purpose.”  Further, the Court will give deference to any taking so long as it is not irrational.  As a consequence — and against common sense — the Court finds that a costly urban-renewal project that boasts only speculative economic benefits, and is suspiciously beneficial to Pfizer Corporation, is deemed a “public use.”

Significance:

Kelo v. New London sparked much controversy when it was decided because it appears to give governments incredibly broad authority to take any land, that is not even blighted, based on a promise of economic renewal.  It represents one extreme end of the range of Takings Clause cases decided by the Court.  The public backlash to the decision may serve to moderate the Court’s decisions in this area in the future.

Student Resources:

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/545/469/opinion.html

https://www.oyez.org/cases/2004/04-108

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