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Post Column: 'Eminent domain' treats citizens unfairly

This weekend, when I tried to Google “Judge Judy,” Google kindly offered its most popular search suggestions.

The first suggestion was “Judge Judy salary.”

The second suggestion was “Judge Judy shows.”

Finally, the third suggestion was “Judge Judy bikini.”

I believe that this originally innocuous Google search has revealed some uncomfortable truths about the modern world. The first, of course, is that the modern world is intensely fascinated with how septuagenarian Judge Judy looks in a bikini. This simultaneously baffles and frightens me somewhat. No offense, Your Honor.

The second is the uncomfortable proximity of the courtroom to commercial development. Currently, it’s not just Judge Judy who has gotten richer off the courtroom. (For those of you who are curious, Judge Judy makes approximately $865,385 per episode.) As if filming family drama court cases and throwing them into the commercial television loop weren’t fishy enough, companies have been rolling over American citizens’ rights to seize lucrative profits.

The culprit this time is the unsuspecting Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. Squirreled away at the end of the 108-word paragraph is the hidden monster of “eminent domain.”

Eminent domain is the right of the government to seize privately owned land for a public purpose, as long as fair compensation is provided. Usually this is used when the government forcibly buys land from citizens in order to build things such as highways.

However, in recent years, the scope of eminent domain has been extended to include having the government take over private land and hand it to for-profit corporations in the name of developed commerce.

In other words, the government is legally allowed to kick people out of their homes and pass the property to companies who want to build stores or factories on the land.

The U.S. Supreme Court questionably agreed that companies were allowed to order the government to carry out eminent domain for their purposes in the 2005 court case Kelo v. City of New London. The case surfaced when Pfizer had the city condemn seven homes in one neighborhood so that Pfizer could build a new pharmaceuticals production site. The city, convinced that doing so would provide economic growth to the area, agreed, and ordered the homeowners to move.

The homeowners, of course, were not happy that their homes were going to be demolished and replaced with pill manufacturers. They fought the decision, and the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Against all logical reasoning, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pfizer, saying that since economic growth was guaranteed, the company had the right to invoke and use eminent domain.

As a result, the contractor for Pfizer bulldozed all seven homes to make way for the new Pfizer plant.

On top of that, the city argued that for the five years that the case had been running, the families living in the homes had been living on city property, and were each supposed to pay tens of thousands of dollars in rent.

And, ironically, in the end, Pfizer abandoned the project. After bulldozing the homes they ran out of money to continue construction. Like a giant farce, the site was ultimately converted into a dump.

During the past five years, over 10,000 small businesses and households have been forcibly asked to sell their land so that corporations’ interests could be served, and a further 4,000 of these parties are still currently under threat of condemnation.

Even now, eminent domain is still regularly exercised, although the doctrine in effect rolls over individual property rights in favor of large corporations and the ephemeral ideal of “collective good.” The decision to continue eminent domain under the name of public purpose for private interests remains one of the great mistakes of the Supreme Court.

Kevin Hwang is a senior at Athens High School who is taking classes at Ohio University and a columnist for The Post. What would you do if the government told you to move? Email Kevin at

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