(August 30, 2005) -- In the days of the old Republic, Americans lived secure in their homes safe in the knowledge that the fundamental responsibility of government was to protect their lives and property from anyone who threatened them - no matter how rich, powerful or well-connected. If a widow didn't want to sell her home to a developer, she didn't have to. That was the end of the matter, unless the developer sent in thugs to beat her up. And government was there to protect her from the thugs.
Under the Kelo v. City of New London, Connecticut decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, government has become the thug. Americans' property rights have been eroded for many years, but Kelo represented the final collapse. It is now entirely permissible for government to seize the home of one person for pennies on the dollar to give it to another - not for some vital over-arching public necessity, but simply because the new owner can pay more taxes than the old.
The decision completes the transition from the old America of individual rights to a collectivist society where government apportions property from those it doesn't like to those it does. Stripped of all its sophistries and euphemisms, that is the underlying principle that has replaced the property protections in the Bill of Rights.
It now falls to the states to restore to their own citizens the fundamental right to property that the federal government has rescinded. In California, an amendment to the state constitution - SCA 15 - has been introduced in the state legislature with the bipartisan support of 45 Senate and Assembly co-authors. It restores the original property protections of the Bill of Rights, and specifically prohibits the seizure of one person's property for the private gain of another.
The measure is opposed by the "California Redevelopment Association," a group of local officials who are responsible for an epidemic of abusive property seizures across California. In Yolo County, for example, the Board of Supervisors has combined with the Rumsey Indian tribe to seize 17,000 acres of private land to be divvied up between the county and the tribe.
They argue additional protections are unnecessary because California law already requires that a property must be "blighted" before government can seize it. But "blight" is so broadly defined as to apply to any neighborhood in California.
Ask Mohammed Mohanna, who came to America from Iran 35 years ago seeking the promise of a free life in a free land. He became a flag-waving American who has spent three decades purchasing and remodeling small storefronts in downtown Sacramento with the aim of ultimately consolidating them into a gleaming new commercial complex. Recently a politically connected tycoon decided upon the same goal - but rather than going to the trouble of finding willing sellers the way Mr. Mohanna has done, he is using his political influence to seize Mohanna's painstakingly assembled holdings instead.
Mohanna's story is a common one. Governments today have the power to take the property of ordinary citizens to give to the rich and powerful - and are using that power. And thanks to the Supreme Court, the Bill of Rights no longer stands in their way.
SCA 15 still allows redevelopment officials to seize private property for a genuine public use such as a road or a school or a park.
It even allows them to acquire private property to give to a Walmart or a developer. The only difference is, in that case, they're no longer allowed to use a gun. They have to do it the old-fashioned way, by negotiating a mutually agreeable price without making threats.
What can you do? Start by calling your local senator and assemblyman and find out if they are co-sponsors of SCA 15, and then let your friends and neighbors know. Because you can be sure of this: any public official who has no moral compunction of stealing your neighbor's home or shop is also perfectly willing to steal yours.
State Senator McClintock, a Republican, represents the Thousand Oaks area.