The last days of the Supreme Court term reflected the particular strengths of the Claremont Institute, our dedication to restoring and applying the principles of the American political tradition to the contemporary world. Our briefs and arguments made their mark on the opinions, especially those of Justice Clarence Thomas.
First, note the amicus (friend of the Court) briefs our Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence filed in one of the two Ten Commandments cases (in Kentucky and Texas) and the homeowners' rights case, Kelo v. City of New London. (These briefs can be found on our CCJ website). We will then explore their implications for a free and virtuous California, which our work at the Center for Local Government emphasizes.
The Kelo case has provoked congressional outrage, with the House passing legislation cutting off federal aid to municipalities who act under their newly acquired powers. The 5-4 Kelo decision puts private property at the mercy of local officials, who may take it for "public benefit," which means for any purpose they deem fit.
Eric Claeys and John Eastman produced a brief from which Clarence Thomas in dissent borrowed. The rare reference to natural rights in a Supreme Court opinion by Justice Thomas, the only justice who respects natural-rights arguments, indicates how close to fundamental principles this case cut. "The Public Use Clause, in short, embodied the Framers' understanding that property is a natural, fundamental right, prohibiting the government from 'tak[ing] property from A. and giv[ing] it to B.'" He cites Claeys' probing essay, "Public-Use Limitations and Natural Property Rights" (2004, Michigan State Law Review 877, 897). That essay was supported by a grant from the Center for Local Government. Claeys is now completing a monograph on redevelopment, eminent domain, and property rights for the Claremont Institute.
The implications of Kelo for California are explored by attorney C. Robert Ferguson in "Kelo in California: The Property-Rights Counterrevolution," available here. Ferguson concludes
Now, after Kelo, without violating the rights of an American citizen, a city or county can use the power of eminent domain simply by creating a "Development Plan" (to ostensibly upgrade an area or neighborhood), and an agency or a development corporation to implement the Development Plan. The new agency or entity will not be funded by property tax revenue, but it can be vested with the power of eminent domainâ€¦.
[T]he United States Supreme Court has decided that cities can use their power simply as a convenient revenue source. Kelo will unleash local governments to abuse their powers to unimaginable heights.
In its two Ten Commandments cases, did the Supreme Court simply split the religious liberty baby? The depiction of the 10 Commandments in the Kentucky courthouse was held to be unconstitutional, because it was only alongside other "religious" documents, such as the Declaration of Independence (human beings are endowed by their "Creator" with certain unalienable rights), the Northwest Ordinance ("religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged"), and the Magna Carta, and therefore reflected Kentucky's religious purpose. But down in Texas, where a much bigger monument was depicted on the grounds of the state capital, near other monuments to Alamo war heroes, firefighters, and a Boy Scouts-donated statue of liberty, the Court (or, rather, Justice Breyer, who was the swing vote) found no religious purpose.
Justice Souter purported to find unconstitutional intentions in the Kentucky case, though no one's rights were affected by the monuments—no oaths were required, no conditions demanded of visitors. They simply and faithfully reflect the history of this country.
What are the implications for Californians? The two First Amendment decisions together bolster our argument that the old Los Angeles County Seal was perfectly constitutional. The cross is but one among many symbols that accurately reflect the historical heritage of the region. The L.A. County Board should not have caved to ACLU pressure.
These Supreme Court decisions make clearer than ever that we must learn to become a self-governing people once again. We need to challenge through lawful action the courts when they permit violations of rights. More than ever, we need to elect freedom-loving city council members and other local government officials who take constitutional principles seriously. On this Fourth of July weekend, it is proper to recall that local liberty is not only a right, it is an obligation.