The United States Supreme Court has ruled that some homeowners in New London, Connecticut, will have to find other lodgings. The local authorities want to bulldoze their houses to make way for, among other things, a building belonging to the Pfizer company. Could the country be facing a critical shortage of Viagra?
Turns out there is no emergency of this magnitude to justify this novel use of eminent domain. The local authorities simply cooked up a development plan and they needed land to make it work. According to their calculations, the development — which will include restaurants, stores, and a Coast Guard museum — would yield much more in tax revenues than a few crummy houses. When some homeowners declined to sell, the town of New London condemned their properties. The homeowners went to court and fought it all the way. They lost, by a split decision.
So, this week the United States Constitution says that it is all right for the government — any level or branch — to grab property because it thinks it can make better use of it than the present owners.
The New York Times and the Washington Post, mouthpieces for elite thought, immediately pronounced themselves satisfied with this decision. The Constitution, of course, doesn’t really mean anything concrete and hasn’t for a long time now. It means whatever you want it to mean and you hope that there are enough legal sophists on the Supreme Court to back your interpretation. One week, there are enough votes to rule that the growing and smoking of marijuana on your own property for medical purposes — deemed legal in your state — is an act that falls under federal jurisdiction because it involves “interstate commerce.” The next week, the city council can take your house and give it to a drug company under the doctrine of “public use.” Who knows what the Constitution will mean next week? Depends on who is wearing the robes.
So interpretation of the Constitution is merely an exercise in raw political power and all the learned analysis of all the legal scholars in the land can’t conceal that.
Still, this ruling hits hard, no matter how well armored in cynicism you might have thought you were. The faith of the New York Times‘ editors in the wisdom of local governments is touching. They are assured by the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, voting with the majority. The Times notes that according to Kennedy the goal of an eminent domain taking “cannot simply be to help a developer or private party become richer.”
Oh, well, in that case, no problem.
The truth — as anyone who does not work in a building in Manhattan that was constructed on land acquired through the use of eminent domain knows — is that developers and local pols, from sea to shining sea, are rubbing their hands over this ruling. And that when local governments start condemning properties, it won’t be in Westchester County. The little man will, as always, get the boot while the elites do some extended chin pulling and talk about “cities’ ability to act in the public interest.”
The Times was especially gratified that the decision marked “a setback to the ‘property rights’ movement.” The editors put the phrase property rights in quotes to signal their belief that the whole concept is specious. In their view, when it comes to “property rights,” you don’t have any. When the city council cuts a deal with some developers who want your land for a new stadium or mall or office complex…well, hard cheese old stick. Here’s a check, go find yourself another hovel where you can live out your miserable, insignificant existence.
What is especially galling and depressing is not the high-handed naivete of the Times or the pomposity of the justices. The Times‘ position, after all, was hardly unexpected. Nor was it a surprise when, a day after the ruling, that same Justice Kennedy said, in a speech before the Florida Bar, that “when judges are attacked unfairly, it’s proper for the bar over the course of time, in a professional and elegant way, to explain to the public the meaning of the rule of law.”
The “elegant” part seems a reach. These are lawyers, after all. But we can surely expect the “professional” part, in heavy helpings. Lawyers — including Supreme Court justices — are real good at explaining in a professional way why the rest of us don’t get it.
Still, one hopes that someday soon, enough Americans will get fed up and explain to the high priests of the law — and the other elites who think it is okay to send the sheriff around to kick you out of your house — that no matter what they think the Constitution says, or ought to say, there is a higher, older law. According to this law, what you own belongs to you and you are entitled to defend it.
There was a time, long before anyone had ever heard of Pfizer and Viagra, when there was enough virility in America to fight back. One prays there will be again. And soon.