John Fund: New film highlights fight against government seizure of homes

It’s safe to say that no U.S. Supreme Court decision in the last generation was as unpopular as Kelo v. City of New London, decided on a 5-4 vote in 2005.

The high court’s ruling seemed to turn an explicit guarantee in the Bill of Rights – “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation” – into a virtual inkblot. It stamped a seal of approval on the right of state and local governments to take land that benefited private development rather than satisfied public need.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The uproar over what came to be known as the Kelo Decision – 93 percent of people in one poll were opposed to it – united groups as disparate as the NAACP and the tea party.

Within months, public pressure had prompted legislatures in more than 40 states to initiate changes in law that made it more difficult to take private property to transfer ownership to other private parties.

Court decisions since then have been far more skeptical of eminent domain abuses. And to this day, Kelo still resonates. Donald Trump, a real estate developer, took a lot of flak for his support of Kelo during the 2016 presidential primaries. One of his aides even admitted to me it hurt Trump’s image as a tribune of the “little guy.”

The raw issues tied up in the Kelo decision – ranging from where the right of a homeowner to hold out against planners ends to how much the definition of “blight” can be stretched to justify a government taking – have now been taken up in a new movie that tells the real-life story behind Kelo.

If you want to see a stirring, modern-day updating of a Frank Capra film that roots for the underdog, “Little Pink House” is just your ticket. As an added bonus, rock legend David Crosby contributed a song for the movie’s closing credits.

Susette Kelo, a single mom and paramedic, thought she had found the perfect home in her working-class town of New London, Connecticut. She bought the modest frame house with the ocean front view, remodeled it and painted it a shade of pink called Odessa rose.  

But it wasn’t long before state and local officials began scheming with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to turn her dream into a nightmare. Flush with cash from sales of its new drug Viagra, Pfizer proposed to build a new plant near Kelo’s neighborhood.

Connecticut’s governor, Republican John Rowland, saw the chance to take credit for creating jobs. He recruited a local college president to lead the effort to expand the plan to transform the 100 residences in the adjacent neighborhood of Fort Trumbull into a development with condos and a luxury hotel.

It wasn’t long before Susette Kelo came home one night to find a note on her door from the New London Development Association offering to buy her house. But Kelo wasn’t interested, and as the association became more menacing and threatened to seize the property under eminent domain, she became the leader of the resistance.

Kelo organized protests at local government meetings, stood down the police when they came to forcibly remove her, and teamed up with six of her neighbors to stay despite the threat that their streets would be demolished.

Her efforts attracted the notice of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm in Washington, which specializes in fighting for individual rights. Institute lawyers took up her case and argued it all the way to the Connecticut Supreme Court. Kelo lost there in a 4-3 decision, but after a five-year struggle found her case going all the way to the Supreme Court.

Many observers couldn’t imagine the court justifying the bullying of Fort Trumbull’s residents. But in reality the Supreme Court had been chipping away at the distinction between taking land for public use versus private benefit ever since the New Deal.

As law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds points out, in 1954 the high court decided in the case of Berman v. Parker that “when the legislature has spoken, the public interest has been declared in terms well nigh conclusive.” In other words, if policymakers want to simply decree something is in the public interest the courts are highly unlikely to stop them.

The court’s Kelo decision followed post-New Deal precedents, but it was still a close call. Then-Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined three other justices in a vigorous dissent, warning that the majority opinion would mean “the specter of condemnation hands over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”

The public outcry against the Kelo decision and subsequent strengthening of private property rights as a result make such warnings less likely.

But the lessons of Kelo must be remembered. Among them is that government is often far more likely to break its promises of jobs and development than it is to keep them.

After plowing through $90 million in public subsidies, in 2009 Pfizer decided to abandon plans for building its new plant, and visions of the neighboring luxury development vanished at the same time. But the Fort Trumbull neighborhood had already been demolished – save for Susette Kelo’s little pink house, which was taken down, moved nearby and reassembled.

The place where Kelo’s house and over 100 other homes and businesses once stood is now a series of vacant lots, occupied by feral animals and the sound of silence.

But Fort Trumbull lives on in the movie “Little Pink House,” which is now in limited national release. You can watch the trailer here, and the Institute for Justice will help any group of 70 or more people to book a theater for a local showing.

The film is a rousing celebration of underdogs fighting against the Goliaths of big government and big business. The portrayal of the heroes avoids portraying them as saints, while at the same time the villains are properly skewered for their hypocrisy.

In one scene, the manipulative head of the New London Development Association reassures Fort Trumbull residents that “social justice and economic development, they go hand in hand.”

Later, a wrecking crew crushes the home of an aging married couple after the police have carted them away by force. A spectator watching the scene turns to the development head with the devastating line: “Interesting way to champion the cause of social justice, Charlotte.”

A good way to champion the individual rights that make America exceptional would be to go see “Little Pink House” and encourage your local schools and civic associations to show the film. The movie isn’t up to the level of Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but it will have you cheering Kelo as she fights City Hall and teaches us all valuable lessons about our freedoms.

John Fund is a columnist for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFund.