Working Paper No. 12-13:
What if Kelo v. City of New London Had Gone the Other Way?

Author(s):

Ilya Somin

Date Posted: February 2012

Availability:
Abstract (below) | Full text (most recent) on SSRN

Abstract:

Kelo v. City of New London is one of the most controversial decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history. The Kelo Court held that the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment allows government to condemn private property and transfer it to other private parties for purposes of “economic development.” This Article considers the question of what might have happened if the Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London in favor of the property owners. Such counterfactual analysis may seem frivolous. But it is, in fact, useful in understanding constitutional history. Any assessment of the impact of a legal decision depends on at least an implicit judgment as to the likely consequences of a ruling the other way. Analysis can be improved by making these implicit counterfactual assumptions clear and systematically considering their implications.

Part I briefly describes the Kelo case and its aftermath, focusing especially on the massive political backlash. That backlash led to numerous new reform laws. However, many of them turned out to be largely symbolic.  Part II discusses the potential value of a counterfactual analysis of Kelo. It could help shed light on a longstanding debate over the effects of Supreme Court decisions on society.  Some have argued that court decisions have little impact, mostly protecting only those rights that the political branches of government would protect of their own accord. Others contend that this pessimistic view underrates the potential effect of Supreme Court decisions.

Part III considers the possible legal effect of a ruling in favor of the property owners. Such a decision could have taken several potential forms. One possibility is that the Court could have adopted the view advocated by the four Kelo dissenters: that economic development condemnations are categorically forbidden by the Public Use Clause. This would have provided strong protection to property owners and significantly altered the legal landscape.  On the other hand, the Court could easily have decided in favor of the property owners on one of two narrower grounds. Such a ruling would have led to much weaker protections for property owners.

Part IV weighs the potential political impact of a decision favoring the property owners. Such an outcome might have forestalled the massive political backlash that Kelo caused. Ironically, a narrow ruling in favor of the owners that did not significantly constrain future takings might have left the cause of property rights worse off than defeat did. On the other hand, a strong ruling categorically banning economic development takings would likely have done more for property rights than the backlash did, especially considering the uneven nature of the latter. Furthermore, political movements sometimes build on legal victories, as well as defeats, as happened in the case of the Civil Rights movement in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. It is possible that property rights advocates could have similarly exploited a victory in Kelo.