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High court weighs eminent domain

Conn. residents sue, questioning 'public purpose'

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide when governments may seize people's homes and businesses for economic development projects, a key question as cash-strapped cities seek ways to generate tax revenue.

At issue is the scope of the Fifth Amendment, which allows governments to take private property through eminent domain, provided the owner is given ''just compensation" and the land is for ''public use."

Susette Kelo and several other homeowners in a working-class neighborhood in New London, Conn., filed a lawsuit after city officials announced plans to raze their homes to clear the way for a riverfront hotel, health club, and offices. The residents refused to budge, arguing it was an unjustified taking of their property.

They argued the taking would be proper only if it served to revitalize slums or blighted areas dangerous to the public.

New London contends the condemnations are proper because the development plans serve a ''public purpose" -- such as boosting economic growth. It said these are valid ''public use" projects that outweigh the homeowner's property rights.

The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with New London, ruling 4 to 3 in March that the mere promise of additional tax revenue justified the condemnation.

Nationwide, more than 10,000 properties were threatened or condemned between 1998 and 2002, according to the Institute for Justice, a Washington public interest law firm representing the New London homeowners.

In many cases, according to the group, cities are pushing the limits of their power to accommodate wealthy developers. Courts, meanwhile, are divided over the extent of city power, with seven states saying economic development can justify a taking and eight states allowing a taking only if it eliminates blight.

In New London, city officials envision replacing a stagnant enclave with commercial development that would attract tourists to the Thames riverfront, complementing an adjoining Pfizer Corp. research center and a proposed Coast Guard museum.

According to the residents' filing, seven states allow condemnations for private business development: Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and North Dakota.

Eight states forbid the use of eminent domain when the economic purpose is not to eliminate blight: Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, South Carolina, and Washington. Another three -- Delaware, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts -- have indicated they probably will find land takings solely for economic development unconstitutional, while the remaining states have not addressed or spoken clearly to the question.

In other action yesterday, the high court:

Agreed to consider whether foreign cruise lines sailing in US waters must comply with a federal law that requires improved access to the disabled.

Agreed to decide if political parties can open their primaries to all voters, in a constitutional challenge to Oklahoma's voting system.

Agreed to hear a case in which a disgruntled former client of defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran contends he was improperly ordered to stop picketing outside Cochran's office.

Said it will hear a death row appeal from a Pennsylvania man who says jurors should have been told they could have sentenced him to prison without parole.

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