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Jordan Candler / Apr. 17, 2018

'Little Pink House': Putting a Spotlight on Government Abuse

A new movie hitting theaters this week tells of the saga that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

In 1997, Connecticut resident Susette Kelo purchased what became known as the “Little Pink House.” Located in the city of New London, Kelo, like many older-home buyers, exerted time and money bringing new life to the dilapidated house. But then the government invoked eminent domain as justification for literally destroying Kelo’s entire neighborhood. A new movie hitting theaters this week, “Little Pink House,” puts a spotlight on the egregious saga that went all the way to the Supreme Court, as well as the broader problem of the government’s powerful eminent-domain arm. Columnist Jeff Jacoby previewed the film in a recent column:

It recounts the true story of Susette Kelo … and her working-class neighbors in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, Connecticut, whose homes were seized by eminent domain to clear the way for an upscale private development at the behest of Pfizer, the Big Pharma colossus. The tiny band of homeowners, represented by idealistic lawyers from the Institute for Justice, fought their eviction all the way to the Supreme Court — and lost. In one of the most infamous decisions in its history, the court ruled, 5-4, that property owners can be stripped of their land whenever the government decides that a wealthier owner would put it to more lucrative use.

Kelo v. City of New London effectively turned an explicit constitutional right into a nullity. Though the language of the Fifth Amendment is clear — “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation” — state and local governments for years had been getting away with using eminent domain to facilitate what amounted to private development. The New London case offered a perfect opportunity to end that abuse, by reaffirming that when the Constitution says “public use,” it means public use. Instead it did the opposite, and Americans were appalled.

They’ll be appalled afresh if they watch “Little Pink House”…

Sadly, there’s more to this story. As Jacoby goes on to write, “It’s still a wasteland today. The grand redevelopment that Pfizer craved and Connecticut politicians were determined to push through never materialized. No hotel, no condos, no added tax revenue. Pfizer itself has left New London. Kelo, Dery, and their neighbors were dispossessed, and part of the Bill of Rights was gutted, for nothing.”

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds recommends the film “Little Pink House,” which he says “is an outstanding and moving treatment of a legal issue that gets far too little attention: The extent to which the state can take your property away just because it thinks it has a better use for it.”

As both Jacoby and Reynolds note, property rights are constitutionally sacred — and for good reason. James Madison said, “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses.” He observed also: “Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.”

There are two problems with how governments goes about eminent domain today. As Professor Reynolds explains, “Courts have interpreted ‘public use’ to mean pretty much anything the government says is for the benefit of the public, or for a ‘public purpose.’ … As for compensation, what’s considered ‘just’ is basically the market value of the property. But often the property is more valuable to its owners than to the market, which is why they haven’t sold.”

It’s too late to save Susette Kelo’s little pink house, but homes just like hers could avert a similar fate if Americans educate themselves on the reality of this abusive situation.

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