Kelo's fifth anniversary: a triumph of property-rights activism

Did the first stirrings of the Tea Party begin five years ago today? On June 23, 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in its Kelo decision that government could seize private property through eminent domain and hand it off to another private entity, putting the private property of all Americans at the mercy of local and state governments.  The decision created outrage, and then grassroots activism to protect private property rights in the face of a grasping and avaricious government, arguably setting the stage for the all-out eruption of Tea Party activism a few years later.  The Institute for Justice reports on the progress made in the intervening five years:

  • Kelo educated the public about eminent domain abuse, and polls consistently show that Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to Kelo and support efforts to change the law to better protect property rights.
  • Citizen activists defeated at least 44 projects that sought to abuse eminent domain for private gain in the five-year period since Kelo.
  • Forty-three states improved their laws in response to Kelo, more than half of those providing strong protection against eminent domain abuse.
  • Nine state high courts restricted the use of eminent domain for private development since Kelo while only one (New York) has so far refused to do so.
  • The New London project for which the property was taken in Kelo has been a complete failure and is now Exhibit A in what happens when governments engage in massive corporate welfare and abuse eminent domain.  Although the project failed, Susette Kelo’s iconic little pink house has been moved to downtown New London and preserved.  It still stands as a monument in honor of the families who fought for their rights and who inspired the nation to change its laws to better protect other property owners.

That’s an impressive record of activism in the face of an overreaching judiciary.  Kelo was actually not an anomaly, but the product of an ever-growing effort in the judiciary to expand eminent domain and the concept of “public use.”  John Hinderaker at Power Line wrote at the time that the anger over the decision was justified, but not the shock.  The surprise over Kelo showed just how ill-informed the public had become on a powerful but arcane legal process until one government finally went too far.

The same can certainly be said of the Tea Party.  It took a massive expansion of government spending and jurisdiction from Barack Obama and the Democrats to finally provoke the initial outcry from CNBC’s Rick Santelli, but it tapped into a deepening conviction that the federal government had grown too large and too unaccountable for personal liberty to survive.  In that sense, a direct line can be drawn from the outrage over Kelo and the limited-government activism it spawned to today’s grassroots movement that threatens to upend the existing political order.

June 23rd is not a bad day to celebrate after all, and who could have predicted that five years ago?