Justice Stevens was no champion of the little guy

President Obama said his nominee to replace John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court would “be someone who, like Justice Stevens, knows that in a democracy, powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens.”

Tell that to the “ordinary citizens” of New London, Conn., whose homes were stolen by the government for use by real estate developers at the request of the largest drug company in America — with the approval of Justice Stevens.

As he prepares to replace Stevens, the president and his allies in the liberal blogs and the mainstream newspapers portray the left's approach to government and jurisprudence as sticking up for the little guy and defending the powerless.

The Washington Post, for instance, greeted Stevens' retirement with a glowing editorial asserting that “his voice was consistently raised on behalf of those vulnerable to government excesses.”

Liberal Huffington Post blogger Dan Froomkin wrote of “Stevens' unblinking devotion to human rights, civil rights, and the rights of the little guy. …”

And the president depicted Stevens as an advocate of the powerless in the face of the powerful.

This may reflect the intentions and sympathies of Stevens, but it doesn't reflect his record — except in criminal matters, in which Stevens frequently did stick up for the accused, the vulnerable, and the disenfranchised.

But in cases involving the economy — and particularly property — Stevens was often on the side of the big business-big government juggernaut trampling on those without wealth or power.

These include minor property cases, such as Dolan v. City of Tigard, in which Stevens, in a dissent, argued for the government's right to force a store owner to place a public green on her property.

But the case that figures most prominently in Stevens' legacy is Kelo v. New London. It set a precedent that exposed the dark consequences of liberalism's sympathy for Big Government.

Stevens wrote in Kelo that the Constitution's definition of “public use” for eminent domain takings included plans for a high-rise hotel intended to make Pfizer's new building nearby more attractive. As a result, seven neighborhood families who refused to sell their homes to the developers were forced out by eminent domain — a stark example of “powerful interests” drowning out “ordinary citizens.”

The New London Development Corporation — a private, nonprofit developer the city put in charge of razing and rebuilding the neighborhood — was headed by Claire Gaudiani, who was married to Pfizer executive David Burnett. As the Hartford Courant reported in 2001, Burnett was perfectly honest about why the government ought to bulldoze the neighborhood next to his company's new building: “Pfizer wants a nice place to operate. We don't want to be surrounded by tenements.”

A Pfizer vice president also sat on the development corporation's board. Former development consultant Jimmy Hicks testified in court that Pfizer was the “10,000-pound gorilla” in the planning process, and said “the entire municipal development plan — it was related back to Pfizer.”

So on one side were wealthy, politically connected executives at a $50-billion-a-year corporation with a multimillion-dollar political action committee and lobbying arm, aided and abetted by tax-hungry politicians. On the other side were lower middle-class homeowners.

In cases like this, you'd expect a good liberal judge to stand up for the little guy.

But in practice, liberalism often isn't really about the “little guy” as much as it is about central planning. The company and the city, Stevens wrote, had exhibited enough “thorough deliberation” and had “carefully formulated” a “comprehensive” plan — and that was enough.

The hotel was never built, the bulldozed neighborhood is still rubble, and Pfizer has announced it is ditching the New London facility in the wake of its merger with Wyeth.

Stevens' Kelo opinion leaned on the noble pillar of “deference to legislative judgment,” but that profession of humility is hard to swallow from a man who also spent his career smashing any legislative attempts to protect the unborn. Abortion, of course, is another issue where the voiceless, vulnerable, little guy didn't find an advocate in Stevens.

Legal scholars can debate Stevens' legal philosophy, his coalition-building skills, and his demeanor. But before journalists parrot the White House's line that Stevens was a champion of the downtrodden, they should visit New London where the collusion of big business and big government — with a nod of approval from Stevens — flattened a neighborhood where little guys once lived.

[CORRECTION: Originally, this column named Pfizer as the buyer of New London homes. In truth, it was the New London Development Corporation.]

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's lobbying editor, can be reached at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. He writes an op-ed column that appears on Friday.

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