KELO V. CITY OF NEW LONDON

545 U.S. 469; 125 S.Ct. 2655; 162 L.Ed.2d 439 (2005)

Vote: 5-4

 

In this highly publicized and extremely controversial decision, the Supreme Court considers whether economic development constitutes a “public use” that justifies a city’s exercise of eminent domain.

 

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

In 2000, the city of New London approved a development plan that, in the words of the Supreme Court of Connecticut, was “projected to create in excess of 1,000 jobs, to increase tax and other revenues, and to revitalize an economically distressed city, including its downtown and waterfront areas.” In assembling the land needed for this project, the city’s development agent has purchased property from willing sellers and proposes to use the power of eminent domain to acquire the remainder of the property from unwilling owners in exchange for just compensation. The question presented is whether the city’s proposed disposition of this property qualifies as a “public use” within the meaning of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

 

The city of New London (hereinafter City) sits at the junction of the Thames River and the Long Island Sound in southeastern Connecticut. Decades of economic decline led a state agency in 1990 to designate the City a “distressed municipality.” … In 1998, the City’s unemployment rate was nearly double that of the State, and its population of just under 24,000 residents was at its lowest since 1920.

 

These conditions prompted state and local officials to target New London, and particularly its Fort Trumbull area, for economic revitalization. To this end, respondent New London Development Corporation (NLDC), a private nonprofit entity established some years earlier to assist the City in planning economic development, was reactivated. In January 1998, the State authorized a $5.35 million bond issue to support the NLDC’s planning activities and a $10 million bond issue toward the creation of a Fort Trumbull State Park. In February, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. announced that it would build a $300 million research facility on a site immediately adjacent to Fort Trumbull; local planners hoped that Pfizer would draw new business to the area, thereby serving as a catalyst to the area’s rejuvenation. After receiving initial approval from the city council, the NLDC continued its planning activities and held a series of neighborhood meetings to educate the public about the process. In May, the city council authorized the NLDC to formally submit its plans to the relevant state agencies for review. Upon obtaining state-level approval, the NLDC finalized an integrated development plan focused on 90 acres of the Fort Trumbull area.

 

The Fort Trumbull area is situated on a peninsula that juts into the Thames River. The area comprises approximately 115 privately owned properties, as well as the 32 acres of land formerly occupied by [a] naval facility (Trumbull State Park now occupies 18 of those 32 acres). The development plan encompasses seven parcels. Parcel 1 is designated for a waterfront conference hotel at the center of a “small urban village” that will include restaurants and shopping. This parcel will also have marinas for both recreational and commercial uses. A pedestrian “riverwalk” will originate here and continue down the coast, connecting the waterfront areas of the development. Parcel 2 will be the site of approximately 80 new residences organized into an urban neighborhood and linked by public walkway to the remainder of the development, including the state park. This parcel also includes space reserved for a new U.S. Coast Guard Museum. Parcel 3, which is located immediately north of the Pfizer facility, will contain at least 90,000 square feet of research and development office space. Parcel 4A is a 2.4-acre site that will be used either to support the adjacent state park, by providing parking or retail services for visitors, or to support the nearby marina. Parcel 4B will include a renovated marina, as well as the final stretch of the riverwalk. Parcels 5, 6, and 7 will provide land for office and retail space, parking, and water-dependent commercial uses.

 

The NLDC intended the development plan to capitalize on the arrival of the Pfizer facility and the new commerce it was expected to attract. In addition to creating jobs, generating tax revenue, and helping to “build momentum for the revitalization of downtown New London,” the plan was also designed to make the City more attractive and to create leisure and recreational opportunities on the waterfront and in the park.

 

The city council approved the plan in January 2000, and designated the NLDC as its development agent in charge of implementation. The city council also authorized the NLDC to purchase property or to acquire property by exercising eminent domain in the City’s name. The NLDC successfully negotiated the purchase of most of the real estate in the 90-acre area, but its negotiations with petitioners failed. As a consequence, in November 2000, the NLDC initiated the condemnation proceedings that gave rise to this case.

 

Petitioner Susette Kelo has lived in the Fort Trumbull area since 1997. She has made extensive improvements to her house, which she prizes for its water view. Petitioner Wilhelmina Dery was born in her Fort Trumbull house in 1918 and has lived there her entire life. Her husband Charles (also a petitioner) has lived in the house since they married some 60 years ago. In all, the nine petitioners own 15 properties in Fort Trumbull--4 in parcel 3 of the development plan and 11 in parcel 4A. Ten of the parcels are occupied by the owner or a family member; the other five are held as investment properties. There is no allegation that any of these properties is blighted or otherwise in poor condition; rather, they were condemned only because they happen to be located in the development area.

In December 2000, petitioners brought this action in the New London Superior Court. They claimed, among other things, that the taking of their properties would violate the “public use” restriction in the Fifth Amendment. After a 7- day bench trial, the Superior Court granted a permanent restraining order prohibiting the taking of the properties located in parcel 4A (park or marina support). It, however, denied petitioners relief as to the properties located in parcel 3 (office space).  

 

After the Superior Court ruled, both sides took appeals to the Supreme Court of Connecticut. That court held, over a dissent, that all of the City’s proposed takings were valid. …

 

Two polar propositions are perfectly clear. On the one hand, it has long been accepted that the sovereign may not take the property of A for the sole purpose of transferring it to another private party B, even though A is paid just compensation. On the other hand, it is equally clear that a State may transfer property from one private party to another if future “use by the public” is the purpose of the taking; the condemnation of land for a railroad with common-carrier duties is a familiar example. Neither of these propositions, however, determines the disposition of this case.

 

As for the first proposition, the City would no doubt be forbidden from taking petitioners’ land for the purpose of conferring a private benefit on a particular private party. Nor would the City be allowed to take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit. The takings before us, however, would be executed pursuant to a “carefully considered” development plan. The trial judge and all the members of the Supreme Court of Connecticut agreed that there was no evidence of an illegitimate purpose in this case. Therefore, … the City’s development plan was not adopted “to benefit a particular class of identifiable individuals.”

 

On the other hand, this is not a case in which the City is planning to open the condemned land--at least not in its entirety--to use by the general public. Nor will the private lessees of the land in any sense be required to operate like common carriers, making their services available to all comers. But although such a projected use would be sufficient to satisfy the public use requirement, this “Court long ago rejected any literal requirement that condemned property be put into use for the general public.” Indeed, while many state courts in the mid-19th century endorsed “use by the public” as the proper definition of public use, that narrow view steadily eroded over time. Not only was the “use by the public” test difficult to administer (e.g., what proportion of the public need have access to the property? at what price?), but it proved to be impractical given the diverse and always evolving needs of society. Accordingly, when this Court began applying the Fifth Amendment to the States at the close of the 19th century, it embraced the broader and more natural interpretation of public use as “public purpose.” Thus, in a case upholding a mining company’s use of an aerial bucket line to transport ore over property it did not own, Justice Holmes’ opinion for the Court stressed “the inadequacy of use by the general public as a universal test.” Strickley v. Highland Boy Gold Mining Co. (1906). We have repeatedly and consistently rejected that narrow test ever since.

 

The disposition of this case therefore turns on the question whether the City’s development plan serves a “public purpose.” Without exception, our cases have defined that concept broadly, reflecting our longstanding policy of deference to legislative judgments in this field.

 

In Berman v. Parker … (1954), this Court upheld a redevelopment plan targeting a blighted area of Washington, D. C., in which most of the housing for the area’s 5,000 inhabitants was beyond repair. Under the plan, the area would be condemned and part of it utilized for the construction of streets, schools, and other public facilities. The remainder of the land would be leased or sold to private parties for the purpose of redevelopment, including the construction of low-cost housing.

The owner of a department store located in the area challenged the condemnation, pointing out that his store was not itself blighted and arguing that the creation of a “better balanced, more attractive community” was not a valid public use. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Douglas refused to evaluate this claim in isolation, deferring instead to the legislative and agency judgment that the area “must be planned as a whole” for the plan to be successful. The Court explained that “community redevelopment programs need not, by force of the Constitution, be on a piecemeal basis--lot by lot, building by building.” The public use underlying the taking was unequivocally affirmed…

 

In Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff(1984), the Court considered a Hawaii statute whereby fee title was taken from lessors and transferred to lessees (for just compensation) in order to reduce the concentration of land ownership. We unanimously upheld the statute and rejected the Ninth Circuit’s view that it was “a naked attempt on the part of the state of Hawaii to take the property of A and transfer it to B solely for B’s private use and benefit.” Reaffirming Berman’s deferential approach to legislative judgments in this field, we concluded that the State’s purpose of eliminating the “social and economic evils of a land oligopoly” qualified as a valid public use. Our opinion also rejected the contention that the mere fact that the State immediately transferred the properties to private individuals upon condemnation somehow diminished the public character of the taking. “[I]t is only the taking’s purpose, and not its mechanics,” we explained, that matters in determining public use.

 

In that same Term we decided another public use case that arose in a purely economic context. In Ruckelshaus v. Monsanto, Co. (1984), the Court dealt with provisions of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act under which the Environmental Protection Agency could consider the data (including trade secrets) submitted by a prior pesticide applicant in evaluating a subsequent application, so long as the second applicant paid just compensation for the data. We acknowledged that the “most direct beneficiaries” of these provisions were the subsequent applicants, but we nevertheless upheld the statute under Berman and Midkiff. We found sufficient Congress’ belief that sparing applicants the cost of time-consuming research eliminated a significant barrier to entry in the pesticide market and thereby enhanced competition.

 

Viewed as a whole, our jurisprudence has recognized that the needs of society have varied between different parts of the Nation, just as they have evolved over time in response to changed circumstances. Our earliest cases in particular embodied a strong theme of federalism, emphasizing the “great respect” that we owe to state legislatures and state courts in discerning local public needs. For more than a century, our public use jurisprudence has wisely eschewed rigid formulas and intrusive scrutiny in favor of affording legislatures broad latitude in determining what public needs justify the use of the takings power. …

 

Those who govern the City were not confronted with the need to remove blight in the Fort Trumbull area, but their determination that the area was sufficiently distressed to justify a program of economic rejuvenation is entitled to our deference. The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including--but by no means limited to--new jobs and increased tax revenue. As with other exercises in urban planning and development, the City is endeavoring to coordinate a variety of commercial, residential, and recreational uses of land, with the hope that they will form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.

 

To avoid this result, petitioners urge us to adopt a new bright-line rule that economic development does not qualify as a public use. Putting aside the unpersuasive suggestion that the City’s plan will provide only purely economic benefits, neither precedent nor logic supports petitioners’ proposal. Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted function of government. There is, moreover, no principled way of distinguishing economic development from the other public purposes that we have recognized. … It would be incongruous to hold that the City’s interest in the economic benefits to be derived from the development of the Fort Trumbull area has less of a public character than any of those other interests. Clearly, there is no basis for exempting economic development from our traditionally broad understanding of public purpose.

 

Petitioners contend that using eminent domain for economic development impermissibly blurs the boundary between public and private takings. Again, our cases foreclose this objection. Quite simply, the government’s pursuit of a public purpose will often benefit individual private parties. For example, in Midkiff, the forced transfer of property conferred a direct and significant benefit on those lessees who were previously unable to purchase their homes. In Monsanto, we recognized that the “most direct beneficiaries” of the data-sharing provisions were the subsequent pesticide applicants, but benefiting them in this way was necessary to promoting competition in the pesticide market. The owner of the department store in Berman objected to “taking from one businessman for the benefit of another businessman,” referring to the fact that under the redevelopment plan land would be leased or sold to private developers for redevelopment. Our rejection of that contention has particular relevance to the instant case: “The public end may be as well or better served through an agency of private enterprise than through a department of government--or so the Congress might conclude. We cannot say that public ownership is the sole method of promoting the public purposes of community redevelopment projects.”

 

It is further argued that without a bright-line rule nothing would stop a city from transferring citizen A’s property to citizen B for the sole reason that citizen B will put the property to a more productive use and thus pay more taxes. Such a one-to-one transfer of property, executed outside the confines of an integrated development plan, is not presented in this case. While such an unusual exercise of government power would certainly raise a suspicion that a private purpose was afoot, the hypothetical cases posited by petitioners can be confronted if and when they arise. They do not warrant the crafting of an artificial restriction on the concept of public use.

 

Alternatively, petitioners maintain that for takings of this kind we should require a “reasonable certainty” that the expected public benefits will actually accrue. Such a rule, however, would represent an even greater departure from our precedent. “When the legislature’s purpose is legitimate and its means are not irrational, our cases make clear that empirical debates over the wisdom of takings--no less than debates over the wisdom of other kinds of socioeconomic legislation--are not to be carried out in the federal courts.” Indeed, earlier this Term we explained why similar practical concerns (among others) undermined the use of the “substantially advances” formula in our regulatory takings doctrine. The disadvantages of a heightened form of review are especially pronounced in this type of case. Orderly implementation of a comprehensive redevelopment plan obviously requires that the legal rights of all interested parties be established before new construction can be commenced. A constitutional rule that required postponement of the judicial approval of every condemnation until the likelihood of success of the plan had been assured would unquestionably impose a significant impediment to the successful consummation of many such plans.

 

Just as we decline to second-guess the City’s considered judgments about the efficacy of its development plan, we also decline to second-guess the City’s determinations as to what lands it needs to acquire in order to effectuate the project. “It is not for the courts to oversee the choice of the boundary line nor to sit in review on the size of a particular project area. Once the question of the public purpose has been decided, the amount and character of land to be taken for the project and the need for a particular tract to complete the integrated plan rests in the discretion of the legislative branch.”

 

In affirming the City’s authority to take petitioners’ properties, we do not minimize the hardship that condemnations may entail, notwithstanding the payment of just compensation. We emphasize that nothing in our opinion precludes any State from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power. Indeed, many States already impose “public use” requirements that are stricter than the federal baseline. Some of these requirements have been established as a matter of state constitutional law, while others are expressed in state eminent domain statutes that carefully limit the grounds upon which takings may be exercised. As the submissions of the parties and their amici make clear, the necessity and wisdom of using eminent domain to promote economic development are certainly matters of legitimate public debate. This Court’s authority, however, extends only to determining whether the City’s proposed condemnations are for a “public use” within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. Because over a century of our case law interpreting that provision dictates an affirmative answer to that question, we may not grant petitioners the relief that they seek.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Connecticut is affirmed. ...



Justice Kennedy, concurring.


            … This Court has declared that a taking should be upheld as consistent with the Public Use Clause as long as it is “rationally related to a conceivable public purpose.” This deferential standard of review echoes the rational-basis test used to review economic regulation under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. The determination that a rational-basis standard of review is appropriate does not, however, alter the fact that transfers intended to confer benefits on particular, favored private entities, and with only incidental or pretextual public benefits, are forbidden by the Public Use Clause.

A court applying rational-basis review under the Public Use Clause should strike down a taking that, by a clear showing, is intended to favor a particular private party, with only incidental or pretextual public benefits, just as a court applying rational-basis review under the Equal Protection Clause must strike down a government classification that is clearly intended to injure a particular class of private parties, with only incidental or pretextual public justifications. As the trial court in this case was correct to observe, “Where the purpose [of a taking] is economic development and that development is to be carried out by private parties or private parties will be benefited, the court must decide if the stated public purpose--economic advantage to a city sorely in need of it--is only incidental to the benefits that will be confined on private parties of a development plan.” 

 

My agreement with the Court that a presumption of invalidity is not warranted for economic development takings in general, or for the particular takings at issue in this case, does not foreclose the possibility that a more stringent standard of review than that announced in Berman and Midkiff might be appropriate for a more narrowly drawn category of takings. There may be private transfers in which the risk of undetected impermissible favoritism of private parties is so acute that a presumption (rebuttable or otherwise) of invalidity is warranted under the Public Use Clause. This demanding level of scrutiny, however, is not required simply because the purpose of the taking is economic development.

 

This is not the occasion for conjecture as to what sort of cases might justify a more demanding standard, but it is appropriate to underscore aspects of the instant case that convince me no departure from Berman and Midkiff is appropriate here. This taking occurred in the context of a comprehensive development plan meant to address a serious city-wide depression, and the projected economic benefits of the project cannot be characterized as de minimus. The identity of most of the private beneficiaries were unknown at the time the city formulated its plans. The city complied with elaborate procedural requirements that facilitate review of the record and inquiry into the city’s purposes. In sum, while there may be categories of cases in which the transfers are so suspicious, or the procedures employed so prone to abuse, or the purported benefits are so trivial or implausible, that courts should presume an impermissible private purpose, no such circumstances are present in this case. …



Justice O’Connor, with whom the Chief Justice, Justice Scalia, and Justice Thomas join, dissenting.

Over two centuries ago, just after the Bill of Rights was ratified, Justice Chase wrote:

An ACT of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority .... A few instances will suffice to explain what I mean.... [A] law that takes property from A and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it. Calder v. Bull (1798).

Today the Court abandons this long-held, basic limitation on government power. Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded--i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public--in the process. To reason, as the Court does, that the incidental public benefits resulting from the subsequent ordinary use of private property render economic development takings “for public use” is to wash out any distinction between private and public use of property--and thereby effectively to delete the words “for public use” from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Accordingly I respectfully dissent. …

 

When interpreting the Constitution, we begin with the unremarkable presumption that every word in the document has independent meaning, “that no word was unnecessarily used, or needlessly added.” In keeping with that presumption, we have read the Fifth Amendment’s language to impose two distinct conditions on the exercise of eminent domain: “the taking must be for a ‘public use’ and ‘just compensation’ must be paid to the owner.”

 

These two limitations serve to protect “the security of Property,” which Alexander Hamilton described to the Philadelphia Convention as one of the “great obj[ects] of Gov[ernment].” Together they ensure stable property ownership by providing safeguards against excessive, unpredictable, or unfair use of the government’s eminent domain power--particularly against those owners who, for whatever reasons, may be unable to protect themselves in the political process against the majority’s will. …

 

Where is the line between “public” and “private” property use? We give considerable deference to legislatures’ determinations about what governmental activities will advantage the public. But were the political branches the sole arbiters of the public-private distinction, the Public Use Clause would amount to little more than hortatory fluff. An external, judicial check on how the public use requirement is interpreted, however limited, is necessary if this constraint on government power is to retain any meaning.

 

Our cases have generally identified three categories of takings that comply with the public use requirement, though it is in the nature of things that the boundaries between these categories are not always firm. Two are relatively straightforward and uncontroversial. First, the sovereign may transfer private property to public ownership--such as for a road, a hospital, or a military base. Second, the sovereign may transfer private property to private parties, often common carriers, who make the property available for the public’s use--such as with a railroad, a public utility, or a stadium. But “public ownership” and “use-by-the-public” are sometimes too constricting and impractical ways to define the scope of the Public Use Clause. Thus we have allowed that, in certain circumstances and to meet certain exigencies, takings that serve a public purpose also satisfy the Constitution even if the property is destined for subsequent private use.

 

This case returns us for the first time in over 20 years to the hard question of when a purportedly “public purpose” taking meets the public use requirement. It presents an issue of first impression: Are economic development takings constitutional? I would hold that they are not. We are guided by two precedents about the taking of real property by eminent domain. …


            In those decisions, we emphasized the importance of deferring to legislative judgments about public purpose. Because courts are ill-equipped to evaluate the efficacy of proposed legislative initiatives, we rejected as unworkable the idea of courts’ “ ‘deciding on what is and is not a governmental function and ... invalidating legislation on the basis of their view on that question at the moment of decision, a practice which has proved impracticable in other fields.’ “ Likewise, we recognized our inability to evaluate whether, in a given case, eminent domain is a necessary means by which to pursue the legislature’s ends.

 

Yet for all the emphasis on deference, Berman and Midkiff hewed to a bedrock principle without which our public use jurisprudence would collapse: “A purely private taking could not withstand the scrutiny of the public use requirement; it would serve no legitimate purpose of government and would thus be void.” To protect that principle, those decisions reserved “a role for courts to play in reviewing a legislature’s judgment of what constitutes a public use ... [though] the Court in Berman made clear that it is ‘an extremely narrow’ one.”

 

The Court’s holdings in Berman and Midkiff were true to the principle underlying the Public Use Clause. In both those cases, the extraordinary, precondemnation use of the targeted property inflicted affirmative harm on society--in Berman through blight resulting from extreme poverty and in Midkiff through oligopoly resulting from extreme wealth. And in both cases, the relevant legislative body had found that eliminating the existing property use was necessary to remedy the harm. Thus a public purpose was realized when the harmful use was eliminated. Because each taking directly achieved a public benefit, it did not matter that the property was turned over to private use. Here, in contrast, New London does not claim that Susette Kelo’s and Wilhelmina Dery’s well-maintained homes are the source of any social harm. Indeed, it could not so claim without adopting the absurd argument that any single-family home that might be razed to make way for an apartment building, or any church that might be replaced with a retail store, or any small business that might be more lucrative if it were instead part of a national franchise, is inherently harmful to society and thus within the government’s power to condemn.

 

In moving away from our decisions sanctioning the condemnation of harmful property use, the Court today significantly expands the meaning of public use. It holds that the sovereign may take private property currently put to ordinary private use, and give it over for new, ordinary private use, so long as the new use is predicted to generate some secondary benefit for the public--such as increased tax revenue, more jobs, maybe even aesthetic pleasure. But nearly any lawful use of real private property can be said to generate some incidental benefit to the public. Thus, if predicted (or even guaranteed) positive side-effects are enough to render transfer from one private party to another constitutional, then the words “for public use” do not realistically exclude any takings, and thus do not exert any constraint on the eminent domain power. …

 

The Court protests that it does not sanction the bare transfer from A to B for B’s benefit. It suggests two limitations on what can be taken after today’s decision. First, it maintains a role for courts in ferreting out takings whose sole purpose is to bestow a benefit on the private transferee--without detailing how courts are to conduct that complicated inquiry. For his part, Justice Kennedy suggests that courts may divine illicit purpose by a careful review of the record and the process by which a legislature arrived at the decision to take--without specifying what courts should look for in a case with different facts, how they will know if they have found it, and what to do if they do not. Whatever the details of Justice Kennedy’s as-yet-undisclosed test, it is difficult to envision anyone but the “stupid staff[er]” failing it. The trouble with economic development takings is that private benefit and incidental public benefit are, by definition, merged and mutually reinforcing. In this case, for example, any boon for Pfizer or the plan’s developer is difficult to disaggregate from the promised public gains in taxes and jobs. …

 

Even if there were a practical way to isolate the motives behind a given taking, the gesture toward a purpose test is theoretically flawed. If it is true that incidental public benefits from new private use are enough to ensure the “public purpose” in a taking, why should it matter, as far as the Fifth Amendment is concerned, what inspired the taking in the first place? How much the government does or does not desire to benefit a favored private party has no bearing on whether an economic development taking will or will not generate secondary benefit for the public. And whatever the reason for a given condemnation, the effect is the same from the constitutional perspective-- private property is forcibly relinquished to new private ownership.

 

A second proposed limitation is implicit in the Court’s opinion. The logic of today’s decision is that eminent domain may only be used to upgrade-- not downgrade--property. At best this makes the Public Use Clause redundant with the Due Process Clause, which already prohibits irrational government action. The Court rightfully admits, however, that the judiciary cannot get bogged down in predictive judgments about whether the public will actually be better off after a property transfer. In any event, this constraint has no realistic import. For who among us can say she already makes the most productive or attractive possible use of her property? The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory. …

 

Finally, in a coda, the Court suggests that property owners should turn to the States, who may or may not choose to impose appropriate limits on economic development takings. This is an abdication of our responsibility. States play many important functions in our system of dual sovereignty, but compensating for our refusal to enforce properly the Federal Constitution (and a provision meant to curtail state action, no less) is not among them. …

 

Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result. ...


Justice Thomas, dissenting.


            Long ago, William Blackstone wrote that “the law of the land ... postpone[s] even public necessity to the sacred and inviolable rights of private property.” The Framers embodied that principle in the Constitution, allowing the government to take property not for “public necessity,” but instead for “public use.” Defying this understanding, the Court replaces the Public Use Clause with a “[P]ublic [P]urpose” Clause, a restriction that is satisfied, the Court instructs, so long as the purpose is “legitimate” and the means “not irrational.” This deferential shift in phraseology enables the Court to hold, against all common sense, that a costly urban-renewal project whose stated purpose is a vague promise of new jobs and increased tax revenue, but which is also suspiciously agreeable to the Pfizer Corporation, is for a “public use.”

 

I cannot agree. If such “economic development” takings are for a “public use,” any taking is, and the Court has erased the Public Use Clause from our Constitution, as Justice O’Connor powerfully argues in dissent. I do not believe that this Court can eliminate liberties expressly enumerated in the Constitution and therefore join her dissenting opinion. Regrettably, however, the Court’s error runs deeper than this. Today’s decision is simply the latest in a string of our cases construing the Public Use Clause to be a virtual nullity, without the slightest nod to its original meaning. In my view, the Public Use Clause, originally understood, is a meaningful limit on the government’s eminent domain power. Our cases have strayed from the Clause’s original meaning, and I would reconsider them. …

 

In my view, it is “imperative that the Court maintain absolute fidelity to” the [Takings] Clause’s express limit on the power of the government over the individual, no less than with every other liberty expressly enumerated in the Fifth Amendment or the Bill of Rights more generally. …

 

The most natural reading of the Clause is that it allows the government to take property only if the government owns, or the public has a legal right to use, the property, as opposed to taking it for any public purpose or necessity whatsoever. At the time of the founding, dictionaries primarily defined the noun “use” as “[t]he act of employing any thing to any purpose.” The term “use,” moreover, “is from the Latin utor, which means ‘to use, make use of, avail one’s self of, employ, apply, enjoy, etc.” When the government takes property and gives it to a private individual, and the public has no right to use the property, it strains language to say that the public is “employing” the property, regardless of the incidental benefits that might accrue to the public from the private use. The term “public use,” then, means that either the government or its citizens as a whole must actually “employ” the taken property. …

 

Tellingly, the phrase “public use” contrasts with the very different phrase “general Welfare” used elsewhere in the Constitution. The Framers would have used some such broader term if they had meant the Public Use Clause to have a similarly sweeping scope.…The Constitution’s text, in short, suggests that the Takings Clause authorizes the taking of property only if the public has a right to employ it, not if the public realizes any conceivable benefit from the taking. ...

 

The public purpose interpretation of the Public Use Clause also unnecessarily duplicates a similar inquiry required by the Necessary and Proper Clause. The Takings Clause is a prohibition, not a grant of power: The Constitution does not expressly grant the Federal Government the power to take property for any public purpose whatsoever. Instead, the Government may take property only when necessary and proper to the exercise of an expressly enumerated power. For a law to be within the Necessary and Proper Clause, as I have elsewhere explained, it must bear an “obvious, simple, and direct relation” to an exercise of Congress’ enumerated powers, and it must not “subvert basic principles of” constitutional design. In other words, a taking is permissible under the Necessary and Proper Clause only if it serves a valid public purpose. Interpreting the Public Use Clause likewise to limit the government to take property only for sufficiently public purposes replicates this inquiry. If this is all the Clause means, it is, once again, surplusage. The Clause is thus most naturally read to concern whether the property is used by the public or the government, not whether the purpose of the taking is legitimately public. …

 

Our current Public Use Clause jurisprudence, as the Court notes, has rejected this natural reading of the Clause. The Court adopted its modern reading blindly, with little discussion of the Clause’s history and original meaning, in two distinct lines of cases: first, in cases adopting the “public purpose” interpretation of the Clause, and second, in cases deferring to legislatures’ judgments regarding what constitutes a valid public purpose. Those questionable cases converged in the boundlessly broad and deferential conception of “public use” adopted by this Court in Berman v. Parker … (1954), and Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff … (1984), cases that take center stage in the Court’s opinion. The weakness of those two lines of cases, and consequently Berman and Midkiff, fatally undermines the doctrinal foundations of the Court’s decision. Today’s questionable application of these cases is further proof that the “public purpose” standard is not susceptible of principled application. This Court’s reliance by rote on this standard is ill advised and should be reconsidered. …

 

The “public purpose” test applied by Berman and Midkiff…cannot be applied in principled manner. “When we depart from the natural import of the term ‘public use,’ and substitute for the simple idea of a public possession and occupation, that of public utility, public interest, common benefit, general advantage or convenience ... we are afloat without any certain principle to guide us.” Once one permits takings for public purposes in addition to public uses, no coherent principle limits what could constitute a valid public use-at least, none beyond Justice O’Connor’s (entirely proper) appeal to the text of the Constitution itself. I share the Court’s skepticism about a public use standard that requires courts to second-guess the policy wisdom of public works projects. The “public purpose” standard this Court has adopted, however, demands the use of such judgment, for the Court concedes that the Public Use Clause would forbid a purely private taking. It is difficult to imagine how a court could find that a taking was purely private except by determining that the taking did not, in fact, rationally advance the public interest. The Court is therefore wrong to criticize the “actual use” test as “difficult to administer.” It is far easier to analyze whether the government owns or the public has a legal right to use the taken property than to ask whether the taking has a “purely private purpose”--unless the Court means to eliminate public use scrutiny of takings entirely. Obliterating a provision of the Constitution, of course, guarantees that it will not be misapplied.

For all these reasons, I would revisit our Public Use Clause cases and consider returning to the original meaning of the Public Use Clause: that the government may take property only if it actually uses or gives the public a legal right to use the property.