June 23: Eminent Domain Redefined in New London


On June 23, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London, a case that redefined — and vastly expanded — the permissible boundaries of eminent domain in the United States.

In the year 2000, the New London Development Corporation, acting under the city’s authority, moved to seize over 100 privately-held residential properties in the city’s Fort Trumbull neighborhood in order to lay the groundwork for a massive expansion of Pfizer Pharmaceutical’s New London campus. Susette Kelo, who owned a now-iconic little pink house in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, was one of fourteen “holdouts” who refused to relinquish their properties and took the NLDC to court.

Kelo and her lawyers argued that the government could only invoke eminent domain for purposes of “public use” like building a highway or public building, not for the benefit of private redevelopment. The lawyers for New London countered that economic redevelopment, even in the hands of private corporations, was a valid example of “public use” that would benefit the entire city as a whole.

Over the next several years, Kelo v. City of New London wove its way through the state and federal court system, arousing strong public opinions among Americans who viewed the case as a gross abuse of the government’s power of eminent domain. In 2005, the Supreme Court decided to hear the case, ultimately ruling in favor of New London and its expanded definition of “public use” in order to justify the seizure of private property. The decision quickly became — and still remains — one of the most infamous and widely-criticized Supreme Court rulings of the 21st century, spurring over 40 states to pass legislation limiting the use of eminent domain.

Before it could be demolished, Susette Kelo’s little pink house was purchased by a local preservationist and moved to another New London neighborhood, about a mile away from Fort Trumbull. To add insult to injury, in 2008, Pfizer — having failed to build anything at all in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood — announced it would be leaving the city of New London entirely, moving across the Thames River to Groton. As of 2018, the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London remains a vacant, undeveloped lot.

Further Reading

Ilya Somin, “The Story Behind Kelo v. City of New London,” Washington Post

Patrick McGeehan, “Pfizer to Leave City that Won Land-Use Case,New York Times

Kelo v. New London: 10 Years Later,” The New London Day