On the John
Completed on September 22, 2005
Where does eminent domain end and government harassment begin? That was the question under discussion last Wednesday at City Hall in the Indiana General Assembly. In the Supreme Court case of Kelo v. City of New London last June in which Pfizer, Inc. wanted to build a research facility on land occupied by community members who did not want to move, the Court ruled in favor of Pfizer. The message was clear: land or property could now be legally seized from one party and given to another party if the second party’s use of the land was deemed more “economically beneficial” to the community. This expands the boundaries of eminent domain, which until June had always been in cases of “public use,” such as railroads, highways, sewers, etc. The broadness of the Court’s interpretation has opened many doors, as Justice O’Connor stated in her dissent: the Court’s ruling will “wash out any distinction between private and public use of property—and thereby effectively delete the words ‘for public use’ from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.”
With the Colts’ announcement that they intend to use eminent domain to expand the parking lot for their new stadium, Indianapolis citizens are finding themselves more and more interested in the Kelo decision. Many citizens have become publicly vocal in their refusals to relocate, and while they are adamant about not wanting to move, they seem most upset by the manner in which those in charge have contacted them. Rather than calling personally and attempting to negotiate, the men in charge have taken to sending out letters describing their intent to take over their land.
This approach was described again and again at the legislative committee meeting September 21st, as concerned citizens stepped to the podium and delivered heart-felt speeches about how they were being walked on and mistreated. In the words of one impassioned man, it was another case of “the government viewing the people as impediments rather than as partners.”
And therein lays the problem: lack of respect for fellow men and women. I have only lived in Indianapolis for a few months, and I have nothing at stake personally in this case. The extent of my knowledge on the stadium situation comes from newspapers and the internet. But it doesn’t take a Hoosier to recognize that there is something wrong here. The 9-21 meeting brought out a number of citizens who felt like they did not matter, citizens who felt that in the eyes of their government they were pests rather than people. Each person who spoke in front of the committee felt like he or she was being cheated out of their property under the watchful eye of the very system that was supposed to protect them. And of course an attorney for the stadium project followed them up, and explained exactly how and why they were legally allowed to do what they wanted to do.
Ah yes, legality. The law is a funny thing. Whatever the outcome is in this case, I’m sure that it will come about in a legal fashion. These things always do. As much as Wilhelmina Dery did not want to vacate the New London house that had been in her family for over 100 years, the government was able to take legal actions against her, just as they will against the people of Indianapolis. If the Supreme Court says it’s OK, then it must be OK.
But what has always been nice about the law is that it does not tell us what we have to do. It only tells us what we can do.
We live in a society, a society of many people and many interests. We have a responsibility to maintain that society, and to treat the people in it with respect. When do we draw the line? When do we say, “Just because it is within my legal rights to do this, I will not do it because it will hurt others”? When do we begin working together towards common solutions rather than taking what we want because we know that we can? When does legality end and morality begin?
There are some who will say that I am being idealistic. That’s fair. With the Kelo ruling on the books, the people in charge of the stadium project will be able to get what they want in a legal way. They may even be right; I do not and will not judge their actions. The citizens have made their case public, but those in charge probably don’t think that a few pleading citizens need to be listened to. Asking nicely rarely works. But push far enough without respect and people will push back. It happened in Los Angeles in 1992; it happened at Columbine in 1999. I’m not saying that I advocate mass riots or insane shootings; far from it. But you cannot control how people will react to your actions. You can only control yourself.
Remember, the law is a human-institution. When legal rights are taken without a sense of community, well, there’s nothing human about it.
Copyright 2005, jm silverstein