James Dupree is a world-renowned artist and native son of Philadelphia, who is about to see his art studio turned into a grocery store, thanks to the rubber-stamp review that passes for judging when his city exercises the power of eminent domain.
James' artistic accomplishments are truly awesome. He has five paintings in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Others can be found in the National Museum of Art in Cardiff, Wales; the Schomberg Museum in New York; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
You can see the Philadelphia Museum of Art from James' studio. It is located in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philadelphia, where James grew up. The studio was a dilapidated warehouse when he purchased it for a little under $200,000. He spent $60,000 installing new electrical equipment and plumbing, $68,000 on roof repairs, and thousands more on renovations, furnishings and appliances.
The investment paid off, for James and for Mantua. What was once a dead, abandoned building is now alive and bustling with activity. James has hosted and taught art classes at his studio and has plans to start a mentorship program in order to give artists an environment where they "can create serious work and receive the support and freedom to explore new ideas."
Dupree Studios is as much of a part of Mantua as James Dupree. It is a monument to the kind of creativity, hard work and dedication that has always been associated with the American spirit.
But in Kelo v. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court held that such monuments can be razed and transformed into monuments to politically connected developers and tax-hungry politicians.
The U.S. Constitution expressly protects property rights and limits the government's power to take property through eminent domain. In Kelo, the Court rubber-stamped the condemnation and transfer of an entire working-class neighborhood to a private developer through the use of eminent domain.
The aftermath of Kelo can be seen in the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's (PRA) treatment of James' studio. After first conducting a drive-by appraisal in which they did not even do James the courtesy of entering his studio, two men from the PRA actually paid him a visit. They lowballed him with an "offer" nowhere near the property's market value, which a real estate agent from Prudential appraised at $2.2 million. According to the redevelopment plans, the PRA wants to bulldoze James' studio to make room for a privately-owned grocery store and its parking lot.
Pennsylvania was one of many states that strengthened its eminent domain laws in response to Kelo. But these reforms did not apply to cities like Philadelphia until December 31, 2012; James' studio was seized on December 27, 2012.
So far, James has not received any help from the courts. On November 13, 2013, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas signed off on the PRA's decision to condemn his property. After seeking time to go back and reexamine her decision, the judge re-affirmed it in a one-sentence order on June 26, 2014.
America is supposed to be different from countries where governments regard property rights as privileges to be given and taken away at politicians' convenience. But our rights cannot be secured unless judges are vigilant in protecting them. In every constitutional case, our Constitution requires judicial engagement -- a genuine effort to enforce all of the Constitution's limits on government, without bent or bias in favor of government, on the basis of real facts and real evidence. Every decision should be given a reasoned justification.
James Dupree's treatment at the hands of his city sounds like something that could not happen in this country. Yes, it's unfair. Yes, it's unjust. Yes, it's un-American. But it's happening right now. If James is going to keep his studio, he will need an engaged appellate court to say "no" to a government that seems bound and determined to steal it.