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Court upholds property seizure in New London

Splitting 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a local government may seize private property for purposes of profit-making private re-development, declaring that this constitutes a “public use” under the Constitution. (Kelo v. New London, 04-108).

While the opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens said that a local government could not take homeowners’ property “simply to confer a private benefit on a particular private party,” the New London. Conn., project involved in this case was “a carefully considered development plan.” While the resulting project would not be open for use by the general public, the Court said, there is no literal requirement of that outcome.

Reading the constitutional phrase “public use” in an expansive way, the Court majority declared: “For more than a century, our public use jurisprudence has wisely eschewed rigid formulas and intrusive scrutiny in favor of affording legislatures broad latitude in determining what public needs justify the use of the takings power.”

The Court commented: “Those who govern the city [of New London] were not confronted with the need to remove blight…, but their determination that the area was sufficiently distressed to justify a program of economic rejuvenation is entitled to our deference….Clearly, there is no basis for exempting economic development from our traditionally broad understanding of public purpose.”

Joining Stevens in the majority were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, and David H. Souter. Kennedy filed a concurring opinion. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s dissenting opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Thomas also wrote a dissenting opinion.

The Court decided that it is unconstitutional to deny a free lawyer to an individual who has pleaded guilty to a crime and seeks permission to appeal. The 6-3 decision came in the case of Halbert v. Michigan (03-10198). Justice Ginsburg announced the decision. Here is the Court’s opinion and the dissenting opinion written by Justice Thomas.

In a second decision authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Court ruled by a 7-2 vote that an amended habeas petition cannot avoid the federal habeas one-year filing deadline, when it makes a new claim that is based on facts differing from those in the original pleading. The case was Mayle v. Felix (04-563). Here’s the Court’s opinion and Justice Souter’s dissenting opinion.

In a ruling announced by Justice Thomas, the Court decided unanimously that the federal government retains its sovereign immunity and thus cannot be sued by farmers claiming that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reduced deliveries of water to a water supply district in order to protect endangered species of fish. (Orff v. U.S., 03-1566)

The Court, dividing 5-4, clarified the power of federal courts to decide lawsuits that involve some parties who do not satisfy the basic requirement that their claims must be worth more than $75,000. In an opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the Court ruled that, if one party satisfies that minimum amount, the claims of others in the case may be decided even if those are for less than $75,000. The ruling came in the consolidated cases of Exxon Corp. v. Allapattah Services (04-70) and Ortega v. Star-Kist Foods (04-79). Here is the Court’s opinion, Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion and the dissenting opinion written by Justice Stevens.

In a 7-2 ruling in a habeas case, the Court ruled that a rule 60-b motion seeking to challenge a District Court ruling on the statute of limitations for filing habeas petitions is not a successive petition, and thus may be decided by the District Court without prior permission from a Circuit Court. The ruling, announced by Justice Scalia, came in Gonzalez v. Crosby (04-6432). Here is the Court’s opinion, Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion and the dissenting opinion written by Justice Stevens.

Further decisions will come on Monday. Six decisions remain before the Court concludes its current Term and recesses until Oct. 3. It is not yet clear that all remaining decisions will be announced Monday; the Court could schedule a second decision day next week.

The remaining cases include two on government displays of the Ten Commandments, the music and movie file-sharing case, a case on the scope of user access to cable companies’ broadband lines to reach the Internet, a case on lawsuits against local governments for failure by police to enforce a protective order against domestic violence, and a case on the scope of a Circuit Court’s authority to withdraw an opinion in a habeas case after the mandate should have been issued.