Thursday, April 16, 2015

Thought Provoking Law Quote: Abraham Lincoln

Whenever there is a conflict between human rights and property rights, human rights must prevail.
--Abraham Lincoln

The thought provoking law quote this week is attributed to Abraham Lincoln, although its provenance is sketchy. The attribution comes from the Congressional Record of May 12, 1944. "Human Rights" is a term that was emerging in the WWII era, but was not commonly used in Lincoln's time. While the provenance may be unclear, the sentiment is not.

I use this quote in class to introduce the eminent domain case of Kelo v. New London.  In Kelo, the US Supreme Court approved a city's use of the eminent domain power to condemn an entire neighborhood of privately owned homes in order to turn the property over to a developer for a proposed hotel/conference complex.  The complex was part of an economic development plan which, according to the court, qualified as a public purpose category of "public use."  Prior to this case, the "public purpose" definition had been used to justify takings only where the existing ownership condition had created some detriment or other public harm.  But in Kelo, the court readily admitted that the houses were not blighted and no public detriment existed - except that the city could increase its tax base if the property was in the hands of someone other than the regular working class tax paying owners who occupied the houses.

At first glance, this may seem to be merely a battle of property rights.  And that is certainly how it was seen by the chairwoman of the New London Redevelopment Authority as expressed in this competing quote:

There are circumstances in which the one gives to the many.

Clearly to New London officials, this dispute was just a matter of economics - get paid for your property and move somewhere else. But almost everyone else sees the City's action as an insensitive violation of the "pursuit of happiness," one of Jefferson's famously enumerated inherent human rights.

Work your whole life, save for your retirement, use your hard earned money to buy a modest property with a water view to which you can retire for your remaining sunset years in peace and happiness. The City can take it from you to turn it into a tourist attraction for yuppies yearning to shed their disposable income. Lincoln's sentiment was lost on the Supreme Court.

No comments:

Post a Comment