Justice Stevens on Kelo

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, retired Justice John Paul Stevens defended his controversial majority opinion in Kelo v. City of New London, which ruled that it was permissible for government to condemn private property for transfer to private parties in order to promote “economic development.” The Court ruled that this was a permissible “public use” under the Fifth Amendment. Stevens was particularly critical of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s dissenting opinion, which he claims contradicted her earlier opinion in Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff

Stevens’ critique of O’Connor is not entirely without merit. In Midkiff, O’Connor wrote a majority opinion concluding that pretty much any rationale for a taking qualifies as a public use so long as it is “rationally related to a conceivable public purpose.” In Kelo, O’Connor dismissed this as merely “errant language.” But as Ben Barros has shown, it was actually deliberately inserted in the Midkiff opinion (O’Connor refused to take it out even after Justice Lewis Powell warned her that it would license virtually unconstrained takings).

That said, Stevens is wrong to suggest that the Court’s only options were either to overrule Midkiff and Berman v. Parker, or uphold the Kelo takings. Justice O’Connor’s dissent draws a perfectly reasonable distinction beween takings that eliminate some preexisting harm (severe blight in Berman, a supposed oligopoly in the property market in Midkiff), versus those that just seek to create some future public benefit. In the former case, there may be less danger that a taking that transfers property to a private party is just a scheme to benefit the new owner, since the public objective can be achieved simply by terminating the previous harmful use of the land. Many state supreme courts have adopted a similar approach under their state constitutions, permitting private-to-private takings for the purpose of eliminating severe blight, but forbidding them in most other situations.

It is not unusual for the Supreme Court to significantly narrow the scope of a precedent without completely overruling it. For example, the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in the Guantanamo cases narrow but do not overrule World War II-era precedents such as Korematsu and Quirin, which apply broad deference to the executive on wartime military decisions. Stevens voted with the majority in all those cases. Justice Stevens himself is the author of the Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Raich, which severely undercut its previous decisions in Lopez and Morrison, but did not overrule them completely. Like Justice Clarence Thomas, I wish the Court had overruled Berman and Midkiff completely. But I can understand why Justice O’Connor (along with Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist), preferred a more cautious approach.

It’s also worth noting that Stevens’ Kelo opinion misinterprets precedent at least as much as O’Connor’s did. For example, Stevens claimed that his position was supported by “a century” of precedent. But, as I explained in this article (pp. 240-44), all but the two most recent of those cases did not involve the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment. They addressed challenges to takings brought under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Stevens also draws a distinction between takings that are part of a redevelopment plan and stand-alone “one-to-one” takings, claiming that broad judicial deference to the government is particularly appropriate in the former scenario, because the planning process protects property owners against abusive condemnations. However, as I explain here (pp. 228-29), the California district course he cites as a paradigmatic example of a “one-to-one” taking actually involved a redevelopment plan. This last mistake is more than just a minor technical error. Getting it right might have helped Stevens and the other majority justices understand that nearly all economic development takings occur in the context of redevelopment plans, and that the existence of a plan provides little or no protection against the use of eminent domain for the benefit of private interests. Influential interest groups routinely use the planning process to their advantage, as the Pfizer Corporation did in Kelo itself. Recognizing this might not have changed Stevens’ mind; but only one of the five majority justices would have had switch his or her vote for the case to have gone the other way.

Justice Stevens’ retrospective on Kelo is an interesting counterpoint to those of Justice Scalia and Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer. He makes some reasonable criticisms of the dissenting justices’ treatment of precedent. Perhaps in the future he will be equally forthcoming about his own similar mistakes.

UPDATE: As commenter “Steve” points out, I was wrong to suggest in my article that the Court did not mention the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment in the 1896 case of Fallbrook Irrigation Dist. v. Bradley. The Court did mention it, but only to point out that it did not apply to the states:

There is no specific prohibition in the federal constitution which acts upon the states in regard to their taking private property for any but a public use. The fifth amendment, which provides, among other things, that such property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation, applies only to the federal government, as has many times been decided.

I am sorry I made this mistake, and grateful to the commenter for pointing it out. But getting it right would have actually strengthened my point.

As I noted in the article linked in my original post, the late nineteenth and early 20th century Supreme Court did consider challenges to state takings under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But it did so under a much more deferential standard of review than in the rare cases where it recognized that the Fifth Amendment does apply because the taking in question was conducted by the federal government.

UPDATE #2: When I wrote my initial post above, I did not yet have available the full text of Justice Stevens’ speech, which is available here. To his credit, Stevens actually admits his error in misdescribing the nineteenth and early twentieth century Due Process Clause decisions as Takings Clause cases. However, he does not acknowledge the fact that this error undermines his claim in the Kelo opinion that his position was backed by a century of precedent.