Eminent Domain: Kelo and Poletown

Immaculate Conception Church

Worshipers attend services at Immaculate Conception Church in the Poletown community of Detroit, Mich., not long before the church is razed (photo from The Detroit News archives).

Up From Poletown: Hathcock

The Poletown ruling spawned a wave of copycat takings across the country. But in 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Poletown decision in Wayne County v. Hathcock. Justice Robert P. Young Jr. wrote, "(W)e must overrule Poletown in order to vindicate our Constitution (and) protect the people’s property rights. ..."


Judges and officeholders often speak eloquently about property rights, but in recent decades, they have eroded these rights all the same.

Susette Kelo

Susette Kelo stands near her home in New London, Conn. (photo by Isaac Reese, 2004 © Institute for Justice).

The most direct assault has come from "eminent domain," in which governments seize private property, pay compensation to the owners and use the land for various projects. This power was meant for public purposes like roads, yet it is now used for "economic development" that generates higher tax revenue, but serves primarily private interests.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London upheld a city’s power to transfer the homes of numerous residents to a private developer planning upscale office space. In a memorable dissent from this ruling, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor charged: "(T)he government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result."

Sadly, the Kelo decision had decades of precedent. In 1981, the Michigan Supreme Court allowed the city of Detroit to level Detroit’s "Poletown" enclave and transfer the land to General Motors Corp. By The Detroit News’ count, the project uprooted some 4,200 residents and razed 1,300 homes, 140 businesses and six churches.