Kelo v. New London

From The Silent Supreme


Justice Thomas, dissenting.

Long ago, William Blackstone wrote that “the law of the land … postpone[s] even public necessity to the sacred and inviolable rights of private property.” The Framers embodied that principle in the Constitution, allowing the government to take property not for “public necessity,” but instead for “public use.” Defying this understanding, the Court replaces the Public Use Clause with a “ ‘[P]ublic [P]urpose’ ” Clause (or perhaps the “Diverse and Always Evolving Needs of Society” Clause,) a restriction that is satisfied, the Court instructs, so long as the purpose is “legitimate” and the means “not irrational.” This deferential shift in phraseology enables the Court to hold, against all common sense, that a costly urban-renewal project whose stated purpose is a vague promise of new jobs and increased tax revenue, but which is also suspiciously agreeable to the Pfizer Corporation, is for a “public use.”

I cannot agree. If such “economic development” takings are for a “public use,” any taking is, and the Court has erased the Public Use Clause from our Constitution, as Justice O’Connor powerfully argues in dissent. I do not believe that this Court can eliminate liberties expressly enumerated in the Constitution and therefore join her dissenting opinion. Regrettably, however, the Court’s error runs deeper than this. Today’s decision is simply the latest in a string of our cases construing the Public Use Clause to be a virtual nullity, without the slightest nod to its original meaning. In my view, the Public Use Clause, originally understood, is a meaningful limit on the government’s eminent domain power. Our cases have strayed from the Clause’s original meaning, and I would reconsider them.


The Fifth Amendment provides:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb, nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process, of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

It is the last of these liberties, the Takings Clause, that is at issue in this case. In my view, it is “imperative that the Court maintain absolute fidelity to” the Clause’s express limit on the power of the government over the individual, no less than with every other liberty expressly enumerated in the Fifth Amendment or the Bill of Rights more generally.

Though one component of the protection provided by the Takings Clause is that the government can take private property only if it provides “just compensation” for the taking, the Takings Clause also prohibits the government from taking property except “for public use.” Were it otherwise, the Takings Clause would either be meaningless or empty. If the Public Use Clause served no function other than to state that the government may take property through its eminent domain power–for public or private uses–then it would be surplusage. See also Marbury v. Madison, (“It cannot be presumed that any clause in the constitution is intended to be without effect”). Alternatively, the Clause could distinguish those takings that require compensation from those that do not. That interpretation, however, “would permit private property to be taken or appropriated for private use without any compensation whatever.” In other words, the Clause would require the government to compensate for takings done “for public use,” leaving it free to take property for purely private uses without the payment of compensation. This would contradict a bedrock principle well established by the time of the founding: that all takings required the payment of compensation. The Public Use Clause, like the Just Compensation Clause, is therefore an express limit on the government’s power of eminent domain.

The most natural reading of the Clause is that it allows the government to take property only if the government owns, or the public has a legal right to use, the property, as opposed to taking it for any public purpose or necessity whatsoever. At the time of the founding, dictionaries primarily defined the noun “use” as “[t]he act of employing any thing to any purpose.” The term “use,” moreover, “is from the Latin utor, which means ‘to use, make use of, avail one’s self of, employ, apply, enjoy, etc.” When the government takes property and gives it to a private individual, and the public has no right to use the property, it strains language to say that the public is “employing” the property, regardless of the incidental benefits that might accrue to the public from the private use. The term “public use,” then, means that either the government or its citizens as a whole must actually “employ” the taken property.

Granted, another sense of the word “use” was broader in meaning, extending to “[c]onvenience” or “help,” or “[q]ualities that make a thing proper for any purpose.” Nevertheless, read in context, the term “public use” possesses the narrower meaning. Elsewhere, the Constitution twice employs the word “use,” both times in its narrower sense. Article 1, §10 provides that “the net Produce of all Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States,” meaning the Treasury itself will control the taxes, not use it to any beneficial end. And Article I, §8 grants Congress power “[t]o raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.” Here again, “use” means “employed to raise and support Armies,” not anything directed to achieving any military end. The same word in the Public Use Clause should be interpreted to have the same meaning.

Tellingly, the phrase “public use” contrasts with the very different phrase “general Welfare” used elsewhere in the Constitution. See ibid. (“Congress shall have Power To … provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States”); preamble (Constitution established “to promote the general Welfare”). The Framers would have used some such broader term if they had meant the Public Use Clause to have a similarly sweeping scope. Other founding-era documents made the contrast between these two usages still more explicit. The Constitution’s text, in short, suggests that the Takings Clause authorizes the taking of property only if the public has a right to employ it, not if the public realizes any conceivable benefit from the taking.

The Constitution’s common-law background reinforces this understanding. The common law provided an express method of eliminating uses of land that adversely impacted the public welfare: nuisance law. Blackstone and Kent, for instance, both carefully distinguished the law of nuisance from the power of eminent domain. Blackstone rejected the idea that private property could be taken solely for purposes of any public benefit. “So great … is the regard of the law for private property,” he explained, “that it will not authorize the least violation of it; no, not even for the general good of the whole community.” He continued: “If a new road … were to be made through the grounds of a private person, it might perhaps be extensively beneficial to the public; but the law permits no man, or set of men, to do this without the consent of the owner of the land.” Only “by giving [the landowner] full indemnification” could the government take property, and even then “[t]he public [was] now considered as an individual, treating with an individual for an exchange.” When the public took property, in other words, it took it as an individual buying property from another typically would: for one’s own use. The Public Use Clause, in short, embodied the Framers’ understanding that property is a natural, fundamental right, prohibiting the government from “tak[ing] property from A. and giv[ing] it to B.”

The public purpose interpretation of the Public Use Clause also unnecessarily duplicates a similar inquiry required by the Necessary and Proper Clause. The Takings Clause is a prohibition, not a grant of power: The Constitution does not expressly grant the Federal Government the power to take property for any public purpose whatsoever. Instead, the Government may take property only when necessary and proper to the exercise of an expressly enumerated power. For a law to be within the Necessary and Proper Clause, as I have elsewhere explained, it must bear an “obvious, simple, and direct relation” to an exercise of Congress’ enumerated powers, and it must not “subvert basic principles of” constitutional design. In other words, a taking is permissible under the Necessary and Proper Clause only if it serves a valid public purpose. Interpreting the Public Use Clause likewise to limit the government to take property only for sufficiently public purposes replicates this inquiry. If this is all the Clause means, it is, once again, surplusage. The Clause is thus most naturally read to concern whether the property is used by the public or the government, not whether the purpose of the taking is legitimately public.

[Internal citations omitted]

The complete text of Justice Thomas’s dissent in Kelo v. New London courtesy of Cornell Law