Eminent injustice in New London
by Jeff Jacoby
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I REACHED Mike Cristofaro on Thursday afternoon, a few hours after the Supreme Court ruled that local governments can seize people's property by eminent domain and turn it over to private developers. The court's 5-4 decision was a defeat for seven New London, Conn., property owners, who have resisted the city's plan to demolish their homes to make way for offices, upscale condos, and a waterfront hotel. Mike's 79-year-old father, Pasquale Cristofaro, is one of those homeowners, and I wondered how he had taken the news.
"I haven't told my father yet," Mike said. "I don't know what to say. You want to help me break it to him?"
I first met the Cristofaros in July 2001. The homeowners' lawsuit against the city was going to trial, and I'd come to New London to talk to some of the plaintiffs and see their homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood for myself. As Mike and I walked to his parents' home on Goshen Street, he recalled how they had learned that the city intended to force them from their property. On the day before Thanksgiving, a sheriff's deputy had shown up at their front door with condemnation papers, and ordered them to be out by March. The news came as such a shock that Mike's mother Margerita began having heart palpitations and had to be taken to the hospital. (She passed away in 2003).
For 27 years, Pasquale had been a loyal city employee. But no one from the New London Development Corp. -- the agency charged with transforming the area into a fashionable complement to the big research headquarters Pfizer was building nearby -- ever came to talk with the Cristofaros about the city's interest in their property. No one from City Hall asked the elderly couple if there was anything that might make a relocation less traumatic. Like the other homeowners, they were told just one thing: Sell now, or be forced out.
"These people don't have no respect," Pasquale, who immigrated from Italy in 1962, told me that day. "You supposed to go like gentlemen -- make me a price, ask me a Yes or No. I love this house. I pay my bill, I pay the tax. And now they say I should get out? It's not right. It's not right."
No, it's not right. But five Supreme Court justices have just said it's constitutional.
In effect, the majority in Kelo v. New London held that the words "public use" in the Fifth Amendment -- "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation" -- can mean wholly private use, so long as the government expects it to yield some incidental public benefit -- more tax revenue, new jobs, "maybe even aesthetic pleasure," as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in a dissent joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Would your town's tax base grow if your home were bulldozed and replaced with a parking garage? If so, it may not be your home for long.
As a result of this evisceration of the Public Use Clause, "the specter of condemnation hangs over all property," the dissenters warn. "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."
In truth, though, it isn't all property that is at risk. If "public use" now means the government can evict a property owner so that a new owner can use the land to make more money, it is clear who will suffer most. "The fallout from this decision will not be random," O'Connor wrote sadly. "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. . . . The government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more."
In a separate dissent, Thomas made the same point: "These losses will fall disproportionately on poor communities . . . the least politically powerful." Fifty years of eminent domain statistics drive home the fact that families uprooted by eminent domain tend to be nonwhite and/or nonwealthy. No wonder urban renewal came to known bitterly as "Negro removal."
"These five justices," Mike Cristofaro told me, "I hope someone looks at their property and says, 'You know, we could put that land to better use -- why don't we get the town to take it from them by eminent domain.' Then maybe they would understand what they're putting my father through."
That won't happen. It isn't the high and mighty on whom avaricious governments and developers prey. Justices John Paul Stevens, Steven Breyer, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Anthony Kennedy are responsible for this execrable decision, which shreds what little was left of the principle that a man's home is his castle. But they'll never have to live with its consequences.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)