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Public use, property rights and the courts

A Connecticut battle between property rights and government power comes before the Supreme Court.

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Property rights in the United States are at a constitutional crossroads.

Increasingly, in towns and cities across the nation, local governments are seizing and demolishing private homes to assemble large tracts of land needed for economic development projects.

Homeowners say their constitutional right to own private property is being violated. Local officials counter that their actions are permitted by the Constitution and are necessary to ensure the long-term prosperity of their communities.

Tuesday, the US Supreme Court takes up a potential landmark case that asks the justices to strike the proper balance between the right to own private property and the government's power to seize that same piece of property for a broader public good. How a majority of justices strike that balance will define the scope of property rights in America, perhaps for generations, analysts say.

"Cities have been going along with almost no guidance from the Supreme Court for almost half a century," says Dana Berliner, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice in Washington. "Whatever [the justices] say is going to have a large impact."

The case, Kelo v. New London, involves an effort by homeowners in New London, Conn., to prevent the city from using its power of eminent domain to demolish their houses to make way for a 90-acre economic development project.

The city says the project is necessary to generate much-needed tax revenues and new jobs. Residents say it amounts to a land grab, with the city taking their property and giving it to a private developer for $1 a year in the hope that commercial development will yield more taxes than private homes have.

The Constitution's Fifth Amendment mandates that private property may be taken by the government if fair compensation is paid to the owner. But there is a second requirement. The property may be taken only if it is for "public use."

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