Eminent domain, and your property

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As the law stands, if government wants you out, start packing.

THE CASE IS KNOWN as Kelo v. City of New London (Connecticut), and it was decided by a narrow 5-4 margin of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005.

The issue before the bar involved eminent domain, a means provided in the U.S. Constitution that allows the state to take private property for a public purpose. The takings clause is contained in the Fifth Amendment, and reads, "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." The framers and, subsequent generations, basically took that to mean eminent domain should be used sparingly, say, to obtain land to build a road or build a school.

Kelo redefined such presumptions, holding that government could take private property from one owner and hand it off to another private owner if political leaders believed that served some higher public purpose. In Kelo, that higher purpose was to take a private home to facilitate investors' economic development plans.

ON TODAY'S front page readers will find an article distributed by Wisconsin Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization devoted to investigative reporting projects. It details how the concept behind Kelo can be exercised to shocking proportions.

To facilitate the Foxconn project local government has deployed eminent domain on a scale that is stunning, taking homes and farm land and anything else in the way, or even nearby. Some property owners gladly sold to cash in on the opportunity. Others reluctantly sold. Others have resisted.

But the power of government to roll over individual objections is hardly an unknown.

Meanwhile, the Foxconn project has continued to be beset by vagaries as the Taiwanese company has sent signals the original concept might evolve in other directions. Obviously, companies are subject to market forces and what seemed like the right idea two or three years ago might be the wrong idea five years from now, so some degree of uncertainty is to be anticipated. Whether the project ever produces the promised 13,000 jobs is anybody's guess at this stage.

For people who were, well, in the way, those uncertainties may matter a lot less than their family homes and memories.

FOR MOST OF its time in the spotlight, the modern conservative movement staunchly defended private property rights over the appetites of government advocates for eminent domain. The idea advanced by Kelo - that private business interests trump private property rights - was anathema to conservatives. But, as the Foxconn project proved, conservative values have evolved.

Call us old fashioned, but we still believe in such principles. It's one thing to roll over citizens with eminent domain when an interstate highway is being built and one hold-out land owner is refusing right of way. It's quite another when a private business, motivated by private profit, has designs on somebody else's property and enlists government to steamroll the owner and take the land.

It's not the first time principle has fallen victim to profit motives, nor will it be the last. And if 13,000 jobs eventually come it's likely most people won't cry over the losses inflicted on property owners adjacent to Foxconn.

Nevertheless, it's worth saying: What happened there, can happen anywhere, to anyone.

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