In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the city of New London, Connecticut, could condemn fifteen residential properties in order to transfer them to a new private owner. Although the Fifth Amendment only permits the taking of private property for "public use," the Court ruled that the transfer of condemned land to private parties for "economic development" is permitted by the Constitution – even if the government cannot prove that the expected development will ever actually happen. The Court's decision in Kelo v. City of New London empowered the grasping hand of the state at the expense of the invisible hand of the market.
Ilya Somin argues that Kelo was a grave error. Economic development and "blight" condemnations are unconstitutional under both originalist and most "living constitution" theories of legal interpretation. They also victimize the poor and the politically weak for the benefit of powerful interest groups, and often destroy more economic value than they create. Forty-five states passed new laws intended to limit the use of eminent domain in the wake of the Supreme Court’s unpopular ruling. But, as Professor Somin explains, many of the new laws impose few or no genuine constraints on takings.
The closely divided 5-4 ruling shattered what many believed to be a consensus that virtually any condemnation qualifies as a public use under the Fifth Amendment. It also showed that there is widespread public opposition to eminent domain abuse. The Grasping Hand offers the first book-length analysis by a legal scholar of this controversy, alongside a broader history of the dispute over public use and eminent domain, and an evaluation of reform options.
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Senior Legal Research Fellow