By Michael Arnheim

Susette Kelo lost her lovely old house. The City of New London, Connecticut, had condemned her home and 114 other lots in a working-class neighborhood in the interests of “economic development.” However, the beneficiaries of this program weren’t the public at large, but Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, and a property development corporation — a private entity.

Does the “takings clause” in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution entitle a city to take property from private citizens for the benefit of other private citizens and corporations? By a 5–4 majority, the high court said yes, even though the Constitution says that private property can be taken only for “public use.”

It’s significant that in this case, the four liberal justices on the Court (plus swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy) supported heavy-handed local government power against the interests of poor property owners. On the other hand, the conservative minority stood up for the rights of the individual. In her dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cited a 1798 opinion condemning “a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B.” as “against all reason and justice.”