Kelo Makes It Into Popular Culture. Sort Of.

 Many of our readers are acquainted with novels by W.E.B. Griffin, dealing with the military, spies and cops. For the benefit of readers who are not acquainted with Mr. Griffin’s work, those novels are just the thing to read on a cross-country flight – they keep you intrigued and entertained, secure in the knowledge that in the end the good guys will prevail. The latest is The Vigilantes, written by Mr. Griffin and William E. Butterworth, IV, Mr. Griffin’s son. This is another volume about the adventures of Philadelphia cops taking on the criminal element. But this one has a twist that’s of interest to us.

It involves inter alia a crooked politician named – are you ready? – Badde (what did you expect? a crooked politician named Goode?) Anyway, the book deals with a good-guy citizen driven beyond endurance by the brutal rape of his daughter, to become a vigilante who, disguised as a FedEx delivery type, travels around Philadelphia and disposes of a bunch of bad guys. But in a subplot, Badde – remember him? – is out to feather his own nest by using his influence to acquire and redevelop some old buildings, in order to make oodles of money. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the authors, though apparently knowledgeable about Philadelphia police matters, are out of their depth when it comes to eminent domain. They confuse condemnation (in the sense of declaring decrepit structures unfit for human habitation) with condemnation (in the sense of using the power of eminent domain to transfer title from property owners to the condemnor).

In his favor,  Mr. Badde redeems himself somewhat when he refers to redevelopment documentation as “bullshit.” Who can gainsay that? But his trusty assistant, named Jan, offers an explanation of the process, that is unlikely to enlighten the reading lay public:

 Badde: “Jesus, I’m glad I hired you to deal with this bullshit. . . . Hope we don’t have any trouble with that last one. I mean, what’s the price of an abandoned building?”

Jan: “Condemned buildings,” she corrected him. “The Supreme Court fixed that for us with the Kelo v. City of New London decision. There won’t be any Fifth Amendment problem with the properties.”

Evidently, the fictional Jan was not aware of the fact that the homes taken in the Kelo case were not condemned (in the sense of being decrepit). On the contrary, much of the public outrage over that decision was inspired by the fact that the homes of Susette Kelo and her neighbors were not decrepit or substandard — they were a part of an unoffending lower middle-class neighborhood.

So maybe the authors of The Vigilantes are a bit confused on this point, but it seems significant to us that Kelo has now entered popular culture as the stuff of crime fiction. Up until now, we recall only two movies of that sort that dealt with eminent domain. One was Nadine, in which murderous bad guys do what they can to learn in advance where a new Texas freeway will go so they can buy up property in its path and get rich when the highway department buys it from them at a handsome profit (never mind that their purchase price would come into evidence, and they might have problems with the “project enhancement” rule). The other one was The Detective, the one with Frank Sinatra, not Alec Guinness, where the bad guys engage in back-and-forth sales of parcels targeted for city acquisition to each other, in order to kite their prices, so that the poor city of New York becomes just plumb unable to build hospitals. Of course, if we may borrow Mr. Badde’s expression, that’s bullshit. When crookedness of this type appears, as it does from time to time, it is usually not a case of fleecing the public officials, but the result of connivance between them and the dishonest land owners. Which is another story that we hope to get around to in this blog in the near future.

So while you can do worse entertainmentwise than to read The Vigilantes, it is unlikely to enhance your knowledge of eminent domain.

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