Home ownership is an important component of the American Dream. A home is a sanctuary in which people can raise a family and maintain at least some semblance of a private life. As John Adams once said, private property rights are “as sacred as the laws of God.” Our country’s second president was echoing what had come to be understood long before he and other freedom-loving colonialists won their independence from Great Britain — the principle that “a man’s home is his castle.”
Unfortunately, private property rights — and the Constitution itself — were dealt a severe blow by the Supreme Court in 2005, when a majority of the nation’s top jurists granted government the power to take a person’s home for virtually whatever reason it wished. This was the infamous decision Kelo v. City of New London.
Before 2005, Susette Kelo personified the American Dream. She and her husband were living happily in a nice, riverfront home in New London, Connecticut. Kelo’s comfortable life came to an abrupt end when the city decided it could make better use of her property by turning it over to Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company. Pfizer promised a massive development of the area, and the cash-strapped city was blinded by the lure of the tax revenues that would be generated by the promised development.
The city argued that, under the so-called “Takings Clause” contained in the Fifth Amendment to our Constitution, it could essentially steal the property of several homeowners for purposes of “economic development.” In the opinion of these local robber barons, such a taking was justified for the “greater good” of the community, and represented a legitimate exercise of eminent domain — a long-recognized power that allows government to purchase private property for “public purposes.”
Kelo fought back, taking her case all the way to the Supreme Court. But the high court ruled in favor of New London.
In the months following this decision, several state legislatures passed constitutional amendments or laws designed to prevent what had happened to Kelo from happening in their states. However, residents in many states remain vulnerable to what has been called the worst Supreme Court decision in decades.
Earlier this week, in a rare moment of bipartisanship in Washington, the House of Representatives stepped up to the plate and passed the “Private Property Protection Act.” This bill would place limitations on states’ use of eminent domain for so-called “economic development” purposes. The bipartisan nature of the legislation is best illustrated by the fact that liberal firebrand Maxine Waters (D-CA) was part of the large, Republican-led coalition that voted for the bill.
The Private Property Protection Act faces an uncertain future. Similar bills have been passed before by the House, only to die in the Senate. Moreover, President Barack Obama’s interest in signing any legislation limiting government’s power is marginal at best.
Of course, even if the act were to confound observers and actually become law, it would do little to help Mrs. Kelo. Her home was moved to another area of New London long ago, and the lot where it once stood is vacant and blighted because funding for the private developer fell through. It now serves as a city dump.
Still, this is a battle worthy of Washington’s attention and support, and it provides at least a glimmer of hope that private property, a cornerstone of liberty, has not been completely snuffed out by the regulatory leviathan.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.