To call it a backlash would hardly do it justice. Calling it an unprecedented uprising to nullify a decision by the highest court in the land would be more accurate.
In the four weeks since the Supreme Court sanctioned the seizure of private homes by municipal governments for private "economic development," a firestorm of reaction has broken out in state legislatures and in Congress.
At the federal level, the House adopted by a vote of 365 to 33 a highly unusual resolution deploring the court's ruling. The House also voted 231 to 189 for a bill that would prohibit the spending of any federal housing, transportation or Treasury money "to enforce the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of Kelo v. City of New London." The court ruled that municipalities have the right to determine what constitutes a "public purpose" for eminent-domain-seizure purposes, even if that means taking privately owned real estate away from one set of citizens and giving it to private developers who promise to increase the local tax base or increase employment.
In effect, the House told the court: You may have narrowly approved the Connecticut city's eminent-domain seizures of homes for a privately developed and owned urban renewal project, but we have a weapon in this fight, too. If the appropriations amendment passes the Senate, the city of New London will not be able to use key federal funds in any way, directly or indirectly, for that project. No transportation money, no housing subsidies, no assistance from the U.S. Treasury.
Meanwhile, bipartisan support is building in the Senate for the broader Protection of Homes, Small Businesses and Private Property Act of 2005, proposed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). That bill would declare that it is Congress's view that "the power of eminent domain should be exercised only for 'public use' as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment, and that this power to seize homes, small businesses and other private property should be reserved only for true public purposes."
Under no circumstances, Cornyn said, should local eminent-domain powers "be used simply to further private economic development." The bill would prohibit all uses of federal funds in connection with any eminent-domain seizures for economic development purposes.
Legislators in more than two dozen states are moving to rein in, or at least clarify, the powers of municipalities to condemn and seize homes. Eight states -- Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Montana, South Carolina and Washington -- already impose restrictions in some form.
In Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) has endorsed a moratorium on eminent-domain seizures, and called the issue "the 21st century equivalent of the Boston Tea Party: the government taking away the rights and liberties of property owners without giving them a voice. But this time it is not a monarch wearing robes in England we are fighting -- it is five robed justices at the Supreme Court in Washington."
The outraged reaction to the Kelo decision has erupted across the entire political and ideological spectrum, making momentary bedfellows of legislators who rarely agree on anything. Name another issue where House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the House's lone self-described socialist, Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), evangelical Christian groups, Rush Limbaugh and Ralph Nader all are on the same side.
Waters denounced the decision, which she said would weigh most heavily upon minority and poor neighborhoods, as "the most un-American thing that can be done." DeLay called the ruling "a travesty."
A few opponents of the Kelo decision are looking to mount direct action, sometimes tongue in cheek. A California-based group called Freestar Media LLC is organizing an effort to persuade the town council of Weare, N.H., where Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter owns property, to condemn the land to give it to developers who promise to construct a hotel on the site, substantially raising town revenue and employment in the process.
Souter voted with the majority in the case. The name of the proposed project: the Lost Liberty Hotel, which will also feature a restaurant called the Just Desserts Cafe.
Logan Darrow Clements, chief executive of Freestar, insists, "This is not a prank. The Town of Weare has five people on the Board of Selectmen. If three of them vote to use the power of eminent domain to take this land from Mr. Souter, we can begin our hotel development."
Just desserts indeed.
Kenneth R. Harney's e-mail address is KenHarney@earthlink.net.