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Film dramatization of Kelo eminent domain case, Little Pink House, opening on Friday

The long-gestating film Little Pink House, dramatizing the 2005 Kelo v. New London Supreme Court decision that galvanized opinion nationally regarding eminent domain--and unsettled eminent domain defenders--is screening Friday April 20 through Thursday, April 26 in Manhattan.

It's playing at the Village East Cinemas in the East Village and AMC Empire 25 in Times Square. At the Village East, director Courtney Balaker and real-life protagonist Susette Kelo (played by Catherine Keener in the film) will be doing a Q&A after the 7 pm screening on Friday April 20. (Here's one early--and mixed--review. Here's columnist Jeff Jacoby's supportive take, noting that the project for which Kelo's house was taken never panned out.)

The film is getting a boost from the libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ), which supplied lawyers for and drove publicity in the case, which, while a loss of Kelo and neighbors, spurred many but not all states to tighten eminent domain laws. Here's a recent Today segment on the film, with Megyn Kelly, who called it a "stunning ruling."

The Kelo case

The decision, actually, was no surprise to law professors, who predicted that the court's liberals, plus moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy, would rely on cases upholding the established--and growing--power to define "public use."

But unlike previous cases, Kelo was the first to involve private homeowners, with condemnation justified by a broader notion, economic development. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in dissent, produced a zinger echoing the IJ's brief: "The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton.” 

That didn't happen, either because O'Connor's fear was overstated and/or most states (44, according to IJ attorney Scott Bullock, on Today) tightened eminent domain laws--which has contributed to the argument that Kelo lost the case but won the war.

In condemnor-friendly New York State,  there were legislative hearings and a state Bar Association task force report, but no changes, and Atlantic Yards opponents unsuccessfully tried to get a federal court to agree that Kennedy's non-binding concurring opinion in Kelo--which argued that certain factors, like commitment of public funds before private beneficiaries were known, legitimated a decision--helped their cause.

Kelo was named to the advisory board of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, though didn't come to Brooklyn for any activities, as far as I know. The IJ supported the Atlantic Yards fight, and attorney Norman Siegel, a noted liberal, said he had no trouble allying with libertarians on these issues, though others were be more wary.

More on the film

I suspect the film will focus more on the personal story. Note that, reviewing Jeff Benedict's book Little Pink House, I found it absorbing but missing key legal complexities. Apparently the film takes even more liberties. The antagonist Kelo faces in the film is called Charlotte Wells, who is a fictionalized version of at least one character, as acknowledged by author Benedict in a 2016 article in The Day of New London.

A publicist for the film writes:
We are excited to have some powerful allies alongside the Institute for Justice (who represented Susette Kelo before the Supreme Court) including legendary musician David Crosby (whose moving original song “Home Free” is featured in the film), Jeff Benedict (author of the book from which the screenplay is based), Ilya Somin (author of the legal scholarly opus on the case: “The Grasping Hand,” ) and the woman at the center of it all—Susette Kelo herself!
LITTLE PINK HOUSE tells the inspiring story of one woman who fought all the way to the US Supreme Court for her home and her community. But for us, it is more than just a movie, it’s a movement. The LITTLE PINK HOUSE Impact Campaign will educate people about on-going Eminent Domain abuse and related injustices, and work towards a day when all homeowners and small-business owners are free from legalized bullying.

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