The Rockford Files

Master of Your Domain

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Kelo v. New London, the truth of this column’s conceit—that Rockford, Illinois, is a microcosm of America—has never been more clear.  One of the running themes of this column since shortly after it began in 2001 as a “Letter From Rockford” has been the abuse of the power of eminent domain by local government.  Now, the Supreme Court has essentially declared that Winnebago County and the city of Rockford were not guilty of abuse; they were simply ahead of the times.

Kelo has substantially removed state and local eminent-domain proceedings from review by the federal courts.  For this reason, some libertarians have cheered the ruling, seeing in it the beginnings of a reversal of the Incorporation Doctrine by which the restrictions of the Bill of Rights (applied originally only to the federal government) have been extended to the states.

If only it were so simple.  While it is true that the Fifth Amendment prohibition on taking private property “for public use, without just compensation” was never meant to apply to the states, it is also true that the amendment was never meant to serve as a summary of the common-law understanding of eminent domain—which did apply to all levels of government—but merely to ensure that, if eminent domain were exercised on the federal...

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