Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage
by Jeff Benedict
Published by Grand Central Publishing
487 pages, 2009
Viagra v. the Little People
Reviewed by Stephen Miller
It is often said that bad cases make for bad law, and the United States Supreme Court case of Kelo v. New London certainly contained a bad set of facts.
Anxious to reverse the decay in New London, Connecticut, as well as neutralize political opponents, Governor John Rowland and his staff dsevised a massive urban renewal project along the New London waterfront. However, a Republican Governor’s involvement in a project in heavily Democratic New London was a non-starter, so the New London Development Corporation was reinvigorated to champion development and manage the resources that would flow from the state.
Eventually the Pfizer Corporation came to be the primary benefactor of this largesse, with enough clout and promise to enable the construction of new research facilities, a conference center and an employee-only hotel. However, a handful of lower income homeowners stood in the way. They didn’t want to move, and their homes were located in the middle of the future Pfizer footprint. The battle that ensued has largely served to change the framing of all discussions regarding the legal concept of eminent domain.
Eminent Domain stands for the proposition that private ownership of property must yield to a project that clearly benefits the public as a whole. This mechanism has allowed for both the destruction of neighborhoods as well as the construction of fire stations, hospitals, schools and freeways. By “taking” the private property in question and providing for “just” compensation for the value of that property, eminent domain serves to solve two problems: the property owner that doesn’t want to sell under any circumstances, and the property owner who is only too willing to sell -- at an unrealistic price. In fact, most eminent domain litigation in the United States centers around not the theoretical underpinnings of the law, but rather an argument over value.
Not this time. Susette Kelo, a divorcee struggling to create a second life after jettisoning a passionless marriage had one thing going for her -- a little pink house with a million-dollar view of the New London waterfront. Over the years, she had fixed the cottage from dilapidated to comfortable, meeting friends in her neighborhood and starting a fledging romance. And then Pfizer, flush with cash thanks to the introduction of their wildly successful impotence drug, Viagra, and using the quasi-official muscle of the New London Development Commission, wanted her property.
Author Jeff Benedict, a veteran investigative journalist, has created a page-turning story over a fairly arcane area of Constitutional law, by pitting Kelo against forces more formidable than she herself could ever hope to be. The chief nemesis in this tale is Claire Gaudiani, the president of prestigious Connecticut College, who arrived in 1998 with “...impressive credentials: a PhD in French Literature, a slew of published articles, the Rolodex of a socialite, and a knack for fundraising .... She was the closest thing New London had to a diva.”
A born social climber, Gaudiani came to the attention of New London movers-and-shakers and was quickly appointed president of the New London Development Commission in 1997, with the orders to make the project happen and to deflect any criticism directed against the city or the governor.
In addition to her resume and connections, Gaudiani also had the gift of condescension that only an over-educated super-achiever could hope to possess, as well as no sense of political finesse (Gaudiani is now ironically installed at the New York University Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising). The heavy-handed tactics she employed, as well as those of her minions, managed to galvanize Kelo and her community until the only local lawyer willing to take on her case remembered that there was a public interest law firm in Washington that made a specialization of property rights cases -- the Institute for Justice. The New London homeowners retained the Institute and its lead counsel, Scott Bullock, whose firm understood that the battle would not be fought in the courtroom, but in the press. The lawyers representing New London were caught flat-footed and fumed while their case lost all degree of public support.
Benedict constructs a tight tale, and he has a natural talent for episodic storytelling. But while he succeeds in casting light on dozens of characters, as well as giving them respect and largely steering clear of editorial judgment, Little Pink House falters in the area of providing any level of legal analysis to this case. In fact, the summary of the Supreme Court’s decision takes up barely half a chapter. Benedict is not a legal scholar, and his book isn’t intended as a lawyer’s treatise, but the inclusion of some level of discussion about how the highest court in the land could have found in favor of a development destined for a Fortune 500 company over a small band of determined homeowners would have been welcome.
To his credit, though, Benedict doesn’t end the story there. The remaining chapters tell about the post-Kelo world of eminent domain, which has been widely curtailed in various states. Anyone wanting to know why would be well advised to consult this book. | January 2009