Working Paper No. 11-21:
The Judicial Reaction to Kelo

Author(s):

Ilya Somin

Date Posted: May 2011

Availability:
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Abstract:

Kelo v. City of New London was one of the most controversial decisions in Supreme Court history, generating a massive political backlash that led 43 states to adopt eminent domain reform laws restricting economic development takings of the kind the Court ruled were constitutional. In addition to the better-known legislative reaction, Kelo was also followed by extensive additional property rights litigation in both federal and state courts. This is the first article to systematically analyze the judicial reaction to Kelo.

Part I briefly summarizes Kelo and its holding. Part II considers state court interpretations of their state constitutional public use clauses since Kelo. Most of these cases have repudiated Kelo, either banning economic development takings outright or significantly constraining them. Part III considers judicial interpretations of Kelo’s “pretext” standard. This is the one area where Kelo might potentially permit nontrivial public use constraints on condemnation. Kelo indicated that condemnations are unconstitutional if the officially stated rationale for the taking is a pretext “for the purpose of conferring a private benefit on a particular private party.” State and lower federal courts have not come to any consensus on what qualifies as a pretextual taking. Nevertheless, several decisions suggest that the pretext standard may have some bite.

Overall, state courts have taken a skeptical view of Kelo, often rejecting it as a guide to the interpretation of their state constitutions. This reaction continues the pre-Kelo trend of increasing judicial protection for property rights at the state level.