Kelo v. New London
545 U.S. 469 (2005)

Annotate this Case



KELO et al. v. CITY OF NEW LONDON et al.

certiorari to the supreme court of connecticut

No. 04–108.Argued February 22, 2005—Decided June 23, 2005

After approving an integrated development plan designed to revitalize its ailing economy, respondent city, through its development agent, purchased most of the property earmarked for the project from willing sellers, but initiated condemnation proceedings when petitioners, the owners of the rest of the property, refused to sell. Petitioners brought this state-court action claiming, inter alia, that the taking of their properties would violate the “public use” restriction in the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. The trial court granted a permanent restraining order prohibiting the taking of the some of the properties, but denying relief as to others. Relying on cases such as Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U. S. 229, and Berman v. Parker, 348 U. S. 26, the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, upholding all of the proposed takings.

Held: The city’s proposed disposition of petitioners’ property qualifies as a “public use” within the meaning of the Takings Clause. Pp. 6–20.

   (a) Though the city could not take petitioners’ land simply to confer a private benefit on a particular private party, see, e.g., Midkiff, 467 U. S., at 245, the takings at issue here would be executed pursuant to a carefully considered development plan, which was not adopted “to benefit a particular class of identifiable individuals,” ibid. Moreover, while the city is not planning to open the condemned land—at least not in its entirety—to use by the general public, this “Court long ago rejected any literal requirement that condemned property be put into use for the … public.” Id., at 244. Rather, it has embraced the broader and more natural interpretation of public use as “public purpose.” See, e.g., Fallbrook Irrigation Dist. v. Bradley, 164 U. S. 112, 158–164. Without exception, the Court has defined that concept broadly, reflecting its longstanding policy of deference to legislative judgments as to what public needs justify the use of the takings power. Berman, 348 U. S. 26; Midkiff, 467 U. S. 229; Ruckelshaus v. Monsanto Co., 467 U. S. 986. Pp. 6–13.

   (b) The city’s determination that the area at issue was sufficiently distressed to justify a program of economic rejuvenation is entitled to deference. The city has carefully formulated a development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including, but not limited to, new jobs and increased tax revenue. As with other exercises in urban planning and development, the city is trying to coordinate a variety of commercial, residential, and recreational land uses, with the hope that they will form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. To effectuate this plan, the city has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the plan’s comprehensive character, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of this Court’s review in such cases, it is appropriate here, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the Fifth Amendment. P. 13.

   (c) Petitioners’ proposal that the Court adopt a new bright-line rule that economic development does not qualify as a public use is supported by neither precedent nor logic. Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted governmental function, and there is no principled way of distinguishing it from the other public purposes the Court has recognized. See, e.g., Berman, 348 U. S., at 24. Also rejected is petitioners’ argument that for takings of this kind the Court should require a “reasonable certainty” that the expected public benefits will actually accrue. Such a rule would represent an even greater departure from the Court’s precedent. E.g., Midkiff, 467 U. S., at 242. The disadvantages of a heightened form of review are especially pronounced in this type of case, where orderly implementation of a comprehensive plan requires all interested parties’ legal rights to be established before new construction can commence. The Court declines to second-guess the wisdom of the means the city has selected to effectuate its plan. Berman, 348 U. S., at 26. Pp. 13–20.

268 Conn. 1, 843 A. 2d 500, affirmed.

   Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed a concurring opinion. O’Connor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia and Thomas, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Primary Holding
Economic benefits are a permissible form of public use that justifies the government in seizing property from private citizens.
Susette Kelo and other private property owners in the city of New London, Connecticut sued the city for an alleged abuse of its eminent domain power. The city government had condemned privately owned real estate within its boundaries and transferred it to the New London Development Corporation, a private entity, for a comprehensive redevelopment plan.

The plaintiffs grounded their claim on an argument that the city's stated purpose of economic development was not a public use, as required to exercise the eminent domain power under the Fifth Amendment. However, a state law provided that economic development was a public use.

Procedural History

Connecticut Supreme Court - 843 A.2d 500 (Conn. 2004)

Judgment for the defendants affirmed. Economic development that will create jobs, increase city revenues, and otherwise revitalize a city can be defined as a public purpose, which in turn is a public use. The government did not violate the Constitution in allowing a private entity to develop the property.



  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Stevens continued the Court's ongoing trend of finding that a public purpose constituted a public use, and he did not find any requirement that the city rather than a private entity pursue that public purpose. Even though the urban area was not blighted, and no social harm was threatened, the city was justified in trying to improve its tax base by attracting wealthier property owners.


  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)

It is important to note that this concurrence is not binding, since Kennedy joined the majority opinion. However, he felt it appropriate to provide clearer guidance on how to review challenges to the eminent domain power under the Fifth Amendment. Rational basis is the proper level of scrutiny to apply here, which requires a rational relationship to a legitimate government purpose. Kennedy suggested that it should be interpreted in a highly fact-specific manner and that defining the government purpose should be left to a trier of fact.

Among factors for courts to consider, according to this view, are whether the private developer would benefit more than the city, whether the city had committed public funds before identifying the private beneficiaries, whether the government had engaged in a good-faith review of development alternatives, whether the government could supply evidence regarding the depressed economic conditions, and whether the government was unaware of private beneficiaries beyond the developer at the time that it decided on the plan.


  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Antonin Scalia

Taking a pragmatic view of the decision's impact, O'Connor argued that it would encourage cities to take away property from impoverished residents and distribute it among wealthy developers and prospective residents. This is because they have greater influence over the political process and can subvert it to create inequalities.


  • Clarence Thomas (Author)

Thomas was not persuaded by the majority's identification of a public purpose with a public use, which he found was not supported by the Fifth Amendment from a textualist perspective.

Case Commentary

This decision was widely controversial and unpopular among the public, but it was not as startling as people may have believed. The Court's conflation of public use with public purpose had appeared in earlier decisions on eminent domain as well. Many observers found this outcome more unpalatable, however, since the city was essentially using its power to remove lower middle class property owners and seek wealthier residents, rather than trying to remedy social ills as in the older cases.

As it turned out, the corporation never managed to get the funding for the redevelopment plan and left the property abandoned as an empty lot. None of the jobs or the other economic benefits materialized as Pfizer, the principal beneficiary of the project, changed its plans.

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