Does the Supreme Court make mistakes? Yes. Sometimes big ones.
One of those was the ruling Kelo v. City of New London.
In the 2005 eminent domain case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided it was legal to transfer land from one private owner to another private owner to further economic development.
In a 5–4 decision, the liberals in the court upended the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, ruling that the general benefits a community could enjoy from economic growth by qualified private redevelopment was permissible under the “public use” clause.
Simply put, it means the government can take your land, your house, your rightful property and give it to private developers when they deem it economically sound for the community.
It was a stunning decision, carved out of a gross violation of property rights and a misuse of the Fifth Amendment. The consequences of a decision to benefit large corporations at the expense of individual homeowners and local communities reverberated throughout the U.S.
Congress responded by introducing legislation to limit the use of eminent domain for economic development. Many states changed their eminent domain laws prohibiting the use of eminent domain to eliminate blight.
The Kelo case is the backdrop to the newly released film “Little Pink House.”
Why now after almost 15 years?
It’s because the power of the government to seize private property continues to flare up in America’s heartland. Most evidently in the taking of landowner properties for oil pipelines.
There are many things to like about “Little Pink House” as a movie. One of them is the understated, quiet, yet emotionally gripping performance of Academy-nominee actress Catherine Keener playing the role of Susette Kelo. Keener anchors the movie with a resolute commitment to do what’s right, no matter the cost. And the case costs her dearly. With neighbors bending or giving up to the powerful forces of big government and big business, Kelo remains an island of righteous resolve.
The story begins in 1997 when Kelo buys her home in the working-class town of New London, Connecticut. It ends in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005. In the intervening years, we see the strains and stresses of Kelo’s life as a recent divorcee. She renovates a dilapidated waterfront house, painting it pink. Despite her eccentricity, her neighbors come to accept Kelo.
She establishes friendships, finds a loyal and trustworthy boyfriend (unlike her two previous husbands), reconnects with an former schoolmate and serves her community as an emergency medical technician (EMT). In New London, Kelo has found her lifelong home.
But so does Pfizer. The giant pharmaceutical conglomerate is persuaded to establish a $350 million research center in New London and become the anchor for the New London redevelopment plan.
The chief lobbyist for the Pfizer development team is Charlotte Wells, played with conviction by Jeanne Tripplehorn. She embodies everything you would want in a power-player: smart, driven, focused, persuasive and opportunistic.
The story takes a legal turn midway when real estate sales offers arrive and are refused, followed by an escalation of eviction notices and the arrival of bulldozers in Kelo’s neighborhood. The legal battle becomes ever more rousing when Institute for Justice lawyer Scott Bullock shows up. He is young, energetic, impassioned and is able to take Kelo’s case all the way to the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s the classic David (Kelo) versus Goliath (Wells/Pfizer) story writ “smallish” against a grassroots drama. The movie excels in telling this tale because it doesn’t overreach. It approaches the subject with heartbreaking nuance yet with just enough earnestness and vigor.
This is an important little movie about a little house in a little community. But it can be big in its impact as it presents big important issues, telling it with a big heart. It’s worth every moment and dime you can spare. It opens this weekend in a limited theatrical release that will roll out over the next few months across the country.
The late Justice Antonin Scalia said it best, warning a ruling in favor of the city would destroy “the distinction between private use and public use,” asserting that a private use that provided merely incidental benefits to the state was “not enough to justify use of the condemnation power.”