Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Apologizes to Susette Kelo for his Vote to Uphold the Condemnation of Her Home – But then Lets Himself off the Hook Too Easily

In the Hartford Courant, journalist Jeff Benedict, author of a major account of the Kelo case, reports on an interesting encounter last year, where Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer apologized to Susette Kelo for voting to uphold the the taking of her home for “economic development” [HT: Cory Andrews]:

If a state Supreme Court judge approaches a journalist at a private dinner and says something newsworthy about an important decision, is the journalist free to publish the statement?

I faced that situation at a dinner honoring the Connecticut Supreme Court at the New Haven Lawn Club on May 11, 2010. That night I had delivered the keynote address on the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous 5-4 decision in Kelo v. New London. Susette Kelo was in the audience and I used the occasion to tell her personal story, as documented in my book “Little Pink House.”

Afterward, Susette and I were talking in a small circle of people when we were approached by Justice Richard N. Palmer. Tall and imposing, he is one of the four justices who voted with the 4-3 majority against Susette and her neighbors. Facing me, he said: “Had I known all of what you just told us, I would have voted differently.”

I was speechless. So was Susette. One more vote in her favor by the Connecticut Supreme Court would have changed history. The case probably would not have advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Susette and her neighbors might still be in their homes.

Then Justice Palmer turned to Susette, took her hand and offered a heartfelt apology. Tears trickled down her red cheeks. It was the first time in the 12-year saga that anyone had uttered the words “I’m sorry.”

It was all she could do to whisper the words: “Thank you.”

Then Justice Palmer let go of her hand and walked off.

Justice Palmer’s statement is yet another indication that, at least at the state level, many judges have become more skeptical about economic development takings since Kelo was decided by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2004 and the US Supreme Court in 2005. I document that skepticism more systematically in this article on the judicial reaction to Kelo.

In a later interview with Benedict, Justice Palmer partially retracted his apology:

Justice Palmer sent me a “personal and confidential” letter dated Nov. 8, 2010. In it he didn’t dispute my account. Nor did he ask me not to publish. Rather, he provided some important context.

“Those comments,” he wrote, “were predicated on certain facts that we did not know (and could not have known) at the time of our decision and of which I was not fully aware until your talk — namely, that the city’s development plan had never materialized and, as a result, years later, the land at issue remains barren and wholly undeveloped.” He later added that he could not know of those facts “because they were not yet in existence….”

Q: Looking back at the Kelo decision (by the Connecticut Supreme Court), how do you see it now? In other words, has it led to good law?

A: I think that our court ultimately made the right decision insofar as it followed governing U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Whether the Kelo case has led to good statutory law is not a question for me or my court; so long as that law is constitutional, its merits are beyond the scope of our authority. Of course, judges are also citizens and, therefore, we may hold a view on the merits, but that view should not interfere with or affect our legal judgment concerning the law’s constitutionality.

Justice Palmer lets himself off the hook too easily. It is true that the justices could not have known for certain that the Kelo condemnations would fail to produce the economic development that supposedly justified the use of eminent domain in the first place. But they could and should have known that such results have often occurred in similar cases, that the New London development plan justifying these particular condemnations was flimsy, and that there was no legal requirement compelling either the city of New London or the new private owners of the condemned property to produce enough development to offset the destruction caused by the takings. Some of these points were in fact noted in Justice Zarella’s dissenting opinion in the Connecticut Supreme Court. As he put it:

In my view, the development plan as a whole cannot be considered apart from the condemnations because the constitutionality of condemnations undertaken for the purpose of private economic development depends not only on the professed goals of the development plan, but also on the prospect of their achievement. Accordingly, the taking party must assume the burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that the anticipated public benefit will be realized. The determination of whether the taking party has met this burden of proof involves an independent evaluation of the evidence by the court, with no deference granted to the local legislative authority. In the present case, the evidence fails to establish that the foregoing burden has been met….

The record contains scant evidence to suggest that the predicted public benefit will be realized with any reasonable certainty. To the contrary, the evidence establishes that, at the time of the takings, there was no signed agreement to develop the properties, the economic climate was poor and the development plan contained no conditions pertaining to future development agreements that would ensure achievement of the intended public benefit if development were to occur.

The evidence Justice Zarella relied on was also available to the majority justices. In fact, the latter did not dispute that evidence, but concluded that most of it was irrelevant to the question of whether the taking really promoted a “public use,” as required by the state and federal constitutions. They held that courts should not consider the actual economic costs and benefits of takings. This despite the logical point that even if “economic development” qualifies as a public use, it surely cannot justify a taking that doesn’t actually produce any economic development or is not likely to do so.

Justice Palmer is right that previous US Supreme Court precedent probably justified the takings under the federal constitution. Only the federal Supreme Court could reverse or narrow those earlier decisions. However, the Connecticut Supreme Court was applying not only the federal Public Use Clause but also that of the Connecticut state constitution. The latter is not controlled by federal Supreme Court precedent. Indeed, long before Kelo, many state supreme courts interpreted their state public use clauses more restrictively than the federal Supreme Court interpreted the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Connecticut Supreme Court could and should have done the same thing in Kelo.

UPDATE: It is not entirely clear whether Justice Palmer now believes that the court was justified in upholding the taking under the Connecticut state Public Use Clause. His statement that he and the other majority justices “made the right decision insofar as [they] followed governing U.S. Supreme Court precedent” could be interpreted to mean that they were wrong on those aspects of the case that were not governed by US Supreme Court precedent, including the question of whether the New London takings were justifiable under the Connecticut Constitution.