Thursday, August 18, 2005

Rubbing salt into the wounds

This past June saw a gross travesty of justice known as Kelo v. New London handed down to us by the Supreme Court. In accordance with Kelo, local government may now seize private property and give it to whomever they damn well please, so long as they do it under the vaguely defined guise of "public good." In this case, "public good" translates into "more tax revenue."

To make matters worse for the plaintiffs in the Kelo lawsuit, the city of New London is charging them rent dating back to the time the land was condemned, going all the way back to 2000.
'I'd leave here broke'

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word meaning brazen arrogance. The cliché example is a man who murders his parents and then begs a judge for mercy because he is an orphan.

The city of New London, Conn., deserves a chutzpah award. In 2000, it condemned 15 homes so a developer could build offices, a hotel and convention center. Susette Kelo and her neighbors spent years in a legal battle that culminated in June, when the
U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against them.

That was painful enough. But while the homeowners were battling in court, New London was calculating how much "rent" they owe for living in the houses they were fighting to save. (The city's development corporation gained title to the homes when it condemned them, though the owners refused to sell and haven't collected a cent.)

The homeowners could soon be served with eviction notices, which is justified by the court ruling. But the rent is something else. For some, it comes to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Kelo, whose name is on the landmark case, could owe $57,000. "I'd leave here broke," she told the Fairfield County Weekly. "I could probably get a large-size refrigerator box and live under the bridge."

In a letter to the homeowners' lawyer a year ago, the development corporation justified its behavior by saying, "We know that your clients did not expect to live in city-owned property for free."

Well, they might have expected not to be bullied for exercising their right to be heard in court.

News of the city's heavy handed tactics should add to the unusual national backlash that has followed the Supreme Court's ruling. The court said state and local governments can seize homes, not just for a public purpose such as building roads or schools, but also for someone else's private profit if the city's economic future is at issue.

The court said states can curtail abuses, and legislatures have rushed to do that. Delaware and Alabama passed laws barring the taking of private property for economic development. Similar measures are pending in eight other states and Congress.

The bills have created some strange alliances. Conservatives worry about the loss of property rights. Liberals say the seizures amount to corporate welfare at the expense of low- and middle-income homeowners who lack the power to fight City Hall.

In response, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell is urging a compromise that would preserve the homes of Kelo and her neighbors.

Unless that happens, they will be evicted - with a rent due. Talk about chutzpah.

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