Investigative journalist Benedict (The Mormon Way of Doing Business: How Eight Western Boys Reached the Top of Corporate America, 2007, etc.) explores the drama behind a controversial Supreme Court ruling on eminent domain.
In a country where home ownership is an unofficial article of faith, the prospect of the state seizing private property to make room for a highway or school is grudgingly tolerated at best. But Benedict’s painstaking reconstruction shows the city of New London, Conn., successfully pushing the definition of “public use” to new extremes by condemning a collection of small homes in a low-income neighborhood as a means of generating more tax dollars. Once reclaimed, this prime waterfront land would become a corporate campus for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The author brings his highly technical subject to life through the passion of his central characters: two women who scarcely met but spent years locked in conflict. Goliath was Claire Gaudiani, the sexy, charismatic and manipulative president of Connecticut College who also headed the New London Development Commission. She saw the state’s power of eminent domain as the perfect tool for refashioning New London into a “hip little city.” That kind of city, the residents of the doomed Fort Trumbull neighborhood bitterly concluded, had room only for “higher income people.” The David in this unfair fight was divorced nurse Susette Kelo, owner of the eponymous Little Pink House. After personally renovating her tumbledown historic home, she was deaf to all offers and threats, telling one reporter, “they can have my house when they take the keys out of my cold, dead hands.” Local politics, public relations wars, sit-ins, Congressional hearings and a 60 Minutes feature eventually propelled the case to the Supreme Court, where the homeowners lost. “The specter of condemnation [now] hangs over all property,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her dramatic dissent from Kelo v. New London, which remains a highly controversial decision.
Capably presented account of a complex legal case that would have been even more compelling if it were shorter.