In a cruel twist of fate, Connecticut is nicknamed “The Constitution State.” This small slice of New England, once known as the “Land of Steady Habits,” is these days most famous for its abuse of the property rights — thus abridging the constitutional rights — of its inhabitants.
A decade ago, local government officials thought it so important that they be able to take the homes of Susette Kelo and other families in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, in order to simply hand their property to a ritzy private development — and moreover, to guard that awesome governmental power in perpetuity — that they litigated the issue of eminent domain all the way to U.S. Supreme Court, in Kelo v. City of New London.
The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution addresses the issue of eminent domain with ample clarity: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
There are two restrictions embedded in that wording.
First, private property cannot be taken without “just compensation.”
Second, the Constitution does not contemplate private property ever being taken for anything but “public use.”
The takings engaged in by the petty tyrants running the City of New London, Connecticut, were not for a public use at all, but for an obviously narrow, private use. Still, the city coyly claimed in court that the transfer of property would serve a “public use” simply because the new development — a new headquarters for Pfizer, the multinational pharmaceutical company, and other shops and residential dwellings — would accrue more tax dollars for city officials to spend than would mere homes for middle class families.
By that logic, Americans would forever live in fear that officials in city or state or federal governments might decide at any time to steal their home or business property and give it to another person or business able to generate more tax revenue for these government officials.
That bizarre logic is, today, the official law of the land.
The Supreme Court decision upholding this vicious and oppressive government behavior will go down in history as one of the Court’s worst ever. As if to symbolize the utter bankruptcy of the robed reasoning, while all those families have long since lost their homes, and the city has spent millions of dollars pursuing one economic development scheme after another, Pfizer has since moved out of town and the Fort Trumbull neighborhood is, today, a vacant field.
Stealing, disguised as economic development, doesn’t always work out so swell.
More recently, and surreptitiously, the State of Connecticut decided to double-down on their state’s political economy, already marked by a lack of economic freedom and a preponderance of arbitrary government heavy-handedness. In short, state transportation officials are expanding the bitterly unpopular power of eminent domain to new dimensions.
Apparently bored with snatching people’s land and buildings, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) is now claiming a right to also take what a judge recently dubbed “intangible property.”
DOT officials condemned, and thus seized, the “certificates of public convenience and necessity,” which have long allowed four private bus companies to carry passengers over certain routes. Last month, a Connecticut judge upheld DOT’s actions, asserting that the certificates were “facilities” fitting within the state eminent domain statute’s limit of “land, building, equipment and facilities.”
Hmmm? Why would the state government be so hostile to businesses?
In this case, businesses heavily subsidized by this same government.
The answer is as simple as it is vehemently denied by Connecticut DOT Commissioner James Redeker: these quasi-private bus companies had the rights to run routes that would have competed with the new DOT-run “Busway,” a much lauded 9.4 mile dedicated bus lane between New Britain and Hartford.
According to one cheerleading mass transit blogger, the Busway “promises to help revitalize the state’s economy and ensure a more sustainable future for Connecticut.” And even better, he notes, “The system will also include a five-mile trail for pedestrians and cyclists and accommodate bicycles on buses.”
The private bus companies will ultimately fight all the way to the Connecticut Supreme Court, but who believes the powers of modern Connecticut government will be bound by any limitation whatsoever?
Government, we’re told, must have unlimited power to take any tangible or even intangible property for any use those in government may imagine would enrich them financially or increase their power.
How else can we expect to lose even more money running empty buses or turn neighborhoods into vacant lots?
Paul Jacob, January 4, 2015
This column first appeared at Townhall.com.