The U.S. Supreme Court got it exactly wrong this week in its decision granting cities the power to destroy private homes to make way for shopping centers and other private projects. The court's liberal wing, joined surprisingly by Justice Anthony Kennedy, seem to be operating under the illusion that redevelopment projects in this country follow the ideals set out 40 years ago that is, that they revitalize ghettos.
Instead, today they take homes and businesses from hard-working taxpayers and give them to Wal-Mart or developers of trendy malls. And now, thanks to the court, that is as legal under the Constitution as taking property for a much-needed highway.
Fortunately, the court specifically acknowledged that its ruling still allows states to pass laws prohibiting the seizure of private property for economic development. Utah's lawmakers, who already have made good strides toward curtailing the power governments have over private property, should take this opportunity to expressly forbid the use of eminent domain except for genuine public uses, such as transportation needs.
We're guessing that few Americans, if faced with the raw facts of the case before the court, would have sided with the city of New London, Conn., the way the majority did. The city wanted to take advantage of a new Pfizer plant to create a modern retail, business and residential development along a waterfront. It succeeded in buying up much of the property in question, but a few property owners refused to sell.
These include a woman who is still living in the house in which she was born in 1918, together with her husband, who also has lived in the house for 60 years. It includes another woman who has made extensive renovations to her home and likes its waterfront views. The city never found that these homes are blighted. Instead, it wanted to force the people out, pay them "fair market value" for homes that, to the owners, have much more than monetary value, and hand the property to another, wealthier private developer.
At various times in Utah, property owners have held out against cities and counties and eventually won in state courts. But local governments continue to push for new and shinier developments to replace old ones, using the often dubious promise of economic development, which is supposed to help the entire municipality.
Private property rights long have been a bedrock of the U.S. system of government. Now, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor put it in her scathing dissent, "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."
Utah lawmakers now need to craft a firm law that makes sure property rights here are still pre-eminent.