Just after 9 a.m. Saturday, Brenda Lashway knocked on the door of a burly cable company technician named Bart Eltz. Wearing a “Beer Hunter” T-shirt, Eltz looked puzzled when Lashway asked if he was familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo vs. the City of New London.
“Well,” Lashway explained, “the way it reads now, our property can be taken from us for essentially any use at all.”
Within minutes, Eltz, 31, was adding his name to a petition that supports a move to seize Justice David H. Souter’s 8-acre homestead here. In June, Souter joined the 5-4 majority upholding the right of governments to appropriate private property for commercial development.
The ruling so outraged eminent domain foes across the country that they decided to get even. Invoking the same premise used by the Supreme Court -- that businesses will generate higher incomes for communities than individual landowners -- they want to turn Souter’s 200-year-old farmhouse into an inn to be known as the Lost Liberty Hotel.
The backlash against the Kelo decision has rippled across the country. Talk radio has exploded with diatribes about the distinction between taking private land for public use -- the traditional theory behind eminent domain -- and public benefit, as the Supreme Court advocated in the Connecticut case, where homes were taken so an office park and hotel complex could be built.
In California, lawmakers have proposed at least three bills pertaining to eminent domain since the court’s ruling. New Hampshire legislators also are considering several bills that would narrow the state’s definition of eminent domain, potentially circumventing the Supreme Court decision. Legislatures elsewhere in the nation also are reviewing laws on the issue. But only in Souter’s hometown have protesters marshaled their fury against a single justice.
Logan Darrow Clements, a businessman from Winnetka, Calif., said the hotel idea was part political statement and part pipedream when he proposed it soon after the court ruling. But the scheme gained steam through blogging and Internet chat discussions.
“And then Rush Limbaugh read my entire press release on the air,” said Clements, 36. “That certainly helped.”
Clements, a follower of the teachings of novelist Ayn Rand, calls himself an “objectivist.” Many others involved in the project are Libertarians.
New Hampshire was a logical place to set the protest, Clements said, because the “Live Free or Die” state has a long history of dissent. Souter’s hometown of Weare was the setting for the Pine Tree Riot, where colonists mobbed British officials who fined them for cutting white pine trees without permission.
Before Clements came up with the Lost Liberty Hotel idea, several residents of this town of 8,500 who were unhappy with the Supreme Court decision had suggested turning Souter’s property into a park honoring the Constitution. Joining forces with Clements, they easily gathered the 25 signatures required to place a measure on the town’s March ballot asking town officials to use eminent domain take over Souter’s land.
Gary Hopper, a former Republican state representative and one of the local organizers of the effort, said he was not particularly interested in displacing the Supreme Court justice from a home he seldom visits anyway.
“If we rattle some cages in Concord, our intent is that they will do their job so suitably that we will be unable to take Souter’s land,” Hopper said.
Souter’s office has declined to comment on this issue.
At the Weare Town Hall on Saturday, Clements began two days of Lost Liberty rallies and door-to-door information sessions by unveiling an architectural rendering that showed how Souter’s dark-brown farmhouse could be incorporated into a larger resort. Mike Michaud -- who made his first trip to New Hampshire from Bonham, Texas, after hearing about the project on talk radio -- said he would be willing to lend his skills as a builder if the project took off.
“I would like to build it as a protest,” said Michaud, who stood out in Weare in his beige ostrich-leather cowboy boots. “But ultimately I don’t want to build this at all. This is the ultimate in civic protest -- using the ruling to protest the ruling.”
But Neal Kurk, who represents Weare in the statehouse, said he and “a lot of other people in town” were troubled by the idea of subjecting a Supreme Court justice to the consequences of one of his own decisions.
“It’s almost as if they are trying to intimidate judges,” said Kurk, a Republican. “It is not vengeance. It is an attempt to show a justice that if he did not like having a rule applied to himself, then he should not have voted that way.”
Anyway, Kurk said he doubted that the town would support the plan to take over Souter’s property.
Calling on two dozen homes Saturday morning with her petition in support of the hotel, Lashway encountered three people who refused to sign, along with another homeowner who said she endorsed the idea, but was uneasy lending her name to any petition.
One of those who would not sign was Beth Salerno, 36, a history professor at a local college who told Lashway that she objected to the entire idea.
“It just doesn’t seem that if a person gives up his time to be a public official, he should be at risk of losing his land,” said Salerno. “He made a decision based on what he felt the law was. It was not a personal decision.”
Lashway, a special-education teacher from Weare, said she wasn’t pleased about targeting Souter either, “but sometimes, you’ve got to make a point.”
But computer scientist Eric Dellinger, who recently moved to Weare from San Jose, quickly signed the petition on Lashway’s clipboard.
“I’m not sure that going after a justice is really the right way to do it,” he said. “But this eminent domain thing is very scary. I don’t want my house to be taken away to be the next Disneyland no matter how much good it would be for other people.”