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Eminent Domain … Not Eminent News

The other day, as I was flipping through the cable news networks over my typical ramen dinner, I was caught off guard by a warning that I was in grave danger. It wasn’t just me though; all Americans were in grave danger. Our homes were going to be taken away, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it.

After deciding that the term “public use” could be interpreted as “public purpose,” the Supreme Court upheld a city’s right to force citizens from their homes for the purpose of commercial development. A civil rights attorney was bashing the decision in a fury of passion on MSNBC. The implications of this decision are far-reaching, she said, and all Americans are now in danger of losing their homes to large corporations that are out to squeeze as much profit as possible. Cities had been given broad deference to do whatever they please with their citizens’ property.

The media’s spin doctors were at it again, I thought, blowing small changes way out of proportion like they always were. And this performance was one effort even Karl Rove could appreciate. Boy, she was livid!

Despite my skepticism of the media’s ability to fairly cover the important issues, this coverage caught and held my attention. It truly was an interesting issue, and the consequences, exaggerated as they may have been depicted, really did have potential to change the lives of many Americans. I watched for a while, finished my dinner, and went back to my room figuring I’d hear more about it in upcoming days.

A few days later, I flipped through the cable news networks again. Slew of east coast shark attacks, who’s next? Kids play T-ball on the White House lawn. Tony Blair’s son takes internship at House of Representatives. Suspect in Holloway case released due to lack of evidence, mother outraged. No eminent domain case? The day the decision was issued this was a hot topic, and was covered by seemingly every cable news network. I gave it another day.

Sure enough, more shark attacks. But it’s a good thing I checked because there was an even bigger story: that’s right; they’ve taken down the Ten Commandments in Kentucky.

I pulled up the Web sites of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. Other than the few outdated articles on Fox and the original Associated Press report on the others, I found little on the eminent domain case and its aftermath.

It seemed that before the debate could really unfold, a weekend passed and new issues surfaced. Luckily these were important things like shark attacks, T-ball, and static murder cases … you know, the things that don’t happen at least every year, or there might be reason to be upset. Yeah, right.

I was disappointed. I wanted to know what would come of this ground-breaking ruling. So, I did some musing of my own.

At its core, this decision is frightening. Not only is it troubling to see even greater government support for the largest corporations in America, but the fact that the decision to seize private property for commercial use now rests solely in the hands of interested parties (i.e. community elites easily swayed by corporations with deep pockets) really got to me.

For those citizens of New London, Connecticut fighting to save their homes and putting everything they own at stake to do it, it’s truly a tragedy. When it began, all they wanted was to keep the property they rightfully owned and loved. But, once the costs of resisting far exceeded the personal cost of giving in and moving out, it became a fight for a nobler cause: pitting disempowered against powerful and testing power with principle.

Now, only time will tell how the future unravels. For those of you in zip code 90210, not to worry, you are fine. Back Bay, Boston, likewise. The rest of you, I’m not so sure, but consider the following.

States can individually attenuate eminent domain authority to protect rights as federalism allows. Externalities such as potential legal battles and PR fights will make abuse of eminent domain less attractive to potential developers and large companies seeking to expand. After all, nobody wants the reputation of being a home wrecker.

And hopefully, people will be more cautious about choosing their local officials, a change many cities could benefit from.

Yet, I still worry about the disempowered. Lacking the finances to stage a legal battle, the political clout to raise a media stink, and the resources to pursue other options, many will probably be forced to give in. This isn’t the worst of it.

The truly sad story is that now we care more about seeing or not seeing the Ten Commandments in our local courtroom than the future of our most fundamental protections. Our news carriers care more about glamour, ratings, and controversy for the sake of controversy than they do about delivering the political dialogue that makes democracy effective. And, as much as I’d hate to admit it, the spin doctors had it right one day. At least somebody cared.

Spin doctors, if you’re out there, thank you. Oh, and one other thing, if it really matters, spin your little brains out, but in the meantime, calm down! You’ll have a heart attack.

Nicholas Haschka, a Nuclear Engineering major, is a member of the Class of 2008.