Conservatives Honor Two Stars: Susette Kelo, Manuel Miranda

Each year the American Conservative Union (ACU) presents its Ronald Reagan Award at the Conservative Political Action Conference. This year’s awards were presented February 10 at the 33rd annual CPAC in Washington, D.C.

For the first time ever, the Ronald Reagan Award was shared by two people:

  • Susette Kelo, famous for her role in Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court’s notorious eminent domain case that cost Kelo her home
  • Manuel Miranda, who was forced from his job as counsel to Majority Leader Bill Frist by vengeful Democrats opposing President Bush’s judicial nominees

Below is a transcript of the presentation of the awards by ACU Chairman David Keene, followed by Kelo’s and Miranda’s speeches.

David Keene: Some years ago Bob Kreible helped us initiate an award to be named for Ronald Reagan, which we set up to recognize the extraordinary efforts of conservatives who have made a difference.

We decided from the beginning that our annual Ronald Reagan Award should not go to the generals of the movement, but to the men and women working in the trenches who sacrificed, and in so doing set an example for others. In past years, the award — which is our highest — has gone to grassroots organizers, taxpayer advocates, and those whose names may not be household names, but whose work has affected us all.

Each year, co-sponsoring organizations and conservatives around the country nominate dozens of men and women for this award, and at the ACU/CPAC board meeting, our director sifts through the nominees to select one winner for the recognition that many of them deserve.

Tonight for the first time I have to report to you that we were unable to select one winner, and have therefore, decided to present the award to two individuals, both of whom have fought for their beliefs, made a difference, and paid a price for standing for principal.

I think it would be safe to say that the last year or so has not been a period in which we’ve had as many victories as we might have hoped for. Neither the Republicans in Congress nor the administration seems willing or capable of coming to grips with out-of-control spending. Many of those we’ve supported over the years appear to have forgotten why we’ve supported them and the small government conservatism that has motivated us and around which our movement has been built has been derided by pundits and some within our ranks as hopelessly naïve.

But the President and Republicans in the Senate have stood firm on one thing: their commitment to reforming out-of-control federal judiciary. While they’ve faltered, but in the end, and largely because of two people we honor tonight they’ve realized that reform is a necessity and continues to be so, and that none of us will tolerate political weakness in seeking it.

Our first winner began as a victim of an out-of-control judicial system staffed by judges who think the framers were kidding when they wrote a constitution to limit government power rather than a blank check giving government the power to do just about anything it wants regardless of the rights of the individual. [She] ultimately became a symbol whose treatment at the hands of such a judiciary convinced many that judicial reform is a goal that we cannot afford to abandon.

Our second was a key to making that reform a real possibility. Without him, I think it’s safe to say that Judge Alito would not be on the court today, for reasons that I’ll go into. But let me tell their story.

Back in 1997, a woman purchased a house on the Thames River in Connecticut. It wasn’t a mansion, the yard was over-run with brush and weed, but it was her dream house. She went to work; she made it her home, and thought that she had a place where she could live the rest of her life.

Less than a year later, however, she was threatened with eviction by eminent domain as the local government decided that it could get more tax revenue by taking her property and the property of her neighbors and turning it over to developers who would upgrade it and generate more tax revenue.

Some of her neighbors moved. She did not. Some of her neighbors caved in. She did not. She went to court to protect her property after the local government condemned it. She won at trial. The government appealed. And ultimately she lost by one vote in the Supreme Court of her state.

She didn’t stop but went to the United States Supreme Court. Last year, in a disappointing decision, the United States Supreme Court reached an outrageous decision, deciding in effect, that her home, and others like it, could be taken by the government for private use, so long as by doing so could generate more tax revenues for itself.

Just as Sandra Day O’Connor was outraged by the decision and wrote that "the specter of condemnation now hangs over all property, nothing is to prevent the state from replacing a Motel 6 with a Ritz Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory." The result was a public backlash.

The court did say that states could prevent this sort of thing by taking action and as of today as a result of this decision and this woman’s refusal to buckle under, some 40 states are considering, passed or are about to have introduced legislation which would essentially nullify the decision as it affects property in those states.

At the same time, thousands of homes are currently under immediate threat by governments that wish to enhance their tax revenues. But her activities, and the case that resulted from it, have woken up many. Last week, the Washington Post reported that one major bank, BB&T, based in North Carolina, has made a policy decision that it will finance no development on land seized by eminent domain.

Anyone, around the country, who doubted the need for reform had those doubts removed by the decision in the case forced to the Supreme Court by one of our winners tonight: Susette Kelo of New London, Connecticut. We will hear from her in a moment.

She will share this year’s Reagan Award, which as you know, includes a stipend of some $10,000, with another individual who enters the story as a staffer, first to the Senate Judiciary Committee, then to majority leader Bill Frist.

Charged with mobilizing support within the Senate and among outside groups and support of conservative federal judiciary nominees. In the course of his work, he discovered that several Democratic senators and members of their staff were working in collusion with the parties to a vitally important federal lawsuit to affect the outcome of that lawsuit. They were in affect conspiring to delay the confirmation of an appeals court judge who might have seated before the suit was decided, be the swing vote to alter the outcome. What they were doing was clearly unethical and probably illegal.

In a normal world, making it public would be political dynamite leading into an investigation to disbarment and possible prosecution. It was sure to be a whopper of a scandal.

Manny Miranda made it public. And the Democrats in the Senate went wild. They said he was releasing confidential information, which he had no right to even if he hadn’t stolen it and merely come upon it, something that reporters and Democrats do all the time.

Since this was Washington, they managed to make the scandal about him rather than about them — about who leaked the information, rather than about who was fixing the case. In the process they managed to avoid an investigation, and convinced Senate Republicans, a strong-willed lot to begin with — more interested in getting along with fellow members of the Senate club than truth, justice, or even partisan advantage — that Manny ought to be sacrificed, fired, and publicly humiliated.

This has been part of a pattern in Washington recently, the attempt to discredit one’s opponents by criminalizing their activity and by attempting to drive them from public life as a result of these kinds of charges.

They no doubt thought that it would all end with that, that Manny Miranda would slink off into the darkness and never be heard from again, as so many have in the past. But it turns out that he’s more than just a principled conservative: He’s a man who doesn’t know the meaning of surrender.

He discovered that he was having trouble finding another job in the private sector because these very same Democrats had driven him off the Hill were following him around warning prospective employers that there clients might suffer if they hired him. He went to war, or to be more precise, went back to work.

He scraped together enough funding to form an ad-hoc coalition to which first convince the Senate Republicans that what became known ultimately as the nuclear option could be used to thwart Democratic filibusters. He then organized hundreds of outside activists into a Third Branch Conference that became the single-most-important mobilizer in support ultimately of Judge Alito’s nomination when he was named.

Along the way, however, he also served notice on a Republican President that we conservatives haven’t worked as hard and as long as we have so that he can put his friends and cronies on the court regardless of their qualifications.

When the President announced his intention to nominate Harriet Miers to the court, Miranda sent out an email before the announcement press conference ended, describing her as "the worst example of cronyism since Lyndon B. Johnson put his buddy Abe Fortas on the court 40 years ago."

In short order, George Will and hundreds of other conservatives around the country joined an effort that resulted in the President pulling back and naming Sam Alito to the court. That nomination would not have been made but for Manny Miranda. And because of the coalition that he put together, that nomination would still be being debated, were in not for Manny Miranda.

So if our first nominee alerted us all to what’s wrong with the courts, our second helped put us on the path to righting that wrong. Our second award winner this evening is Manny Miranda, who I believe is here as well.

We’re going to hear from both of our award winners in a few moments, but first I have to ask their forgiveness because when we met today I didn’t know that we weren’t going to be able to choose one winner so we have just one plaque. We will however produce another one and we’ve torn up one check and are writing two. So let me begin by turning the microphone over to you.

Susette Kelo: Good evening everyone. I want to thank everyone for this award. It’s a true honor and it’s a true honor to be here tonight. I’d like to thank the Institute for Justice and Ralph, my husband, who are here with me tonight and have represented me throughout this battle.

I am Susette Kelo and Kelo vs. the City of London is the infamous United States Supreme Court case, in which the court ruled that private property, including my home, can be taken by another private party who promised to create more jobs and taxes with the land. They didn’t have to prove. They only had to promise.

Five years ago, on the evening before Thanksgiving, I received a notice to quit — to leave my lovely and now legendary pink cottage on the Thames River that I had worked so hard for, and this marked the beginning of my fight to defend what is rightly mine.

Last year I had the opportunity to testify before the Judiciary Committee of the United States House and Senate on the issue of eminent domain abuse. Congress is already showing signs of doing what judges and local legislators so far have refused to do for me my neighbors and thousands of people like me across this country: protect our homes under which we believe to be the original intent of the United States Constitution.

Federal lawmakers are considering legislation that will hold federal funding for eminent domain projects that are for private development, such as the one that could take my home, which received $2 million in federal funds. However, while this legislation is very important, it is not a magic solution surrounding to the many problems of the government use of eminent domain.

If homeowners, small business owners, churches and others are to be safe, state law across this nation must follow the congressional lead and do what they should have been doing all along: respecting an individual’s rights to own property rather than cutting sweetheart deals with developers who tempt lawmakers with the promise of more taxes and jobs.

What we have now at the local, state, and federal levels amounts to government by the highest bidder. If you think I’m overstating my point, consider my story — variations of which are played out daily with literally thousands of homeowners across the country who now live under the threat of eminent domain for another private party’s profit.

South Eastern Connecticut has always been my home. I bought my house at 8 East Street in New London in 1997 because it was just what I was looking for: A great view of the Thames River, nice neighbors and a price I could afford. I spent a lot of time and energy fixing up my little cottage but I enjoyed it and I made a little home for myself and my family, and I’m proud to say an asset to my neighborhood and the city.

In 1998 a real-estate agent came by and made me and offer on behalf of an unnamed buyer. I told her I was not at all interested, but she said if I refused to sell my home would be taken by eminent domain. She went on to tell me stories of her relatives who had lost their homes to eminent domain. Her advice? "Give up, the government always wins."

It turned out that the unnamed buyer was the City of New London acting through the New London Development Corporation. So why did they want to kick us out? To make way for upscale condos, other private development that could bring in more taxes for the city and could possible create more jobs.

Claire Gaudiani, the president of the New London Development Corporation, is quoted as saying: "To make it a hip little city." I took that to mean higher income people. The poor, the middle class, had to make way for the rich and politically connected. If the government wanted to take our property for a road or a firehouse, I would be disappointed but I would be prepared to sell. But this was not the case, and the government should not be allowed to force me to sell my home so somebody else could live here.

The New London Development Corporation wants my land to market it for a developer for projects that will compliment the new FISA facility in our area. This is for private profit, not public use. Most of my neighbor’s homes have been bulldozed. Many of my older neighbors have died still hoping their homes would be saved. But six families have stayed and fought — not only for our rights, but for the rights of homeowners nationwide.

Like my neighbors, I worked hard, and in my case, working as many as three jobs to pay for my home. Our own government should not force us out simply because someone else who carries more political clout wants the land for a non-public use. Isn’t that what the courts, Congress and the Constitution are supposed to protect us from?

As I sat in the United States Supreme Court last February and listened to the justices hear my case, I was disappointed that their first question and their first concern was for the power of the government and not the rights of the citizens. In many ways, my neighbors and I are victims of legislators, lawyers and judges who believe it is somehow a sign of intelligence to make language that clearly means one thing mean something exactly the opposite. Public use now means private use. Judges don’t adjudicate; they allow legislators to decide whether the Constitution is being violated.

There is nothing intelligent about misusing language in this way about taking peoples homes and their rights. What has happened to me and my neighbors should not be allowed to happen to anyone else in this truly democratic society such as ours.

Congress and state legislators need to send a message to local governments that this misuse of power will not only not be funded, it will not be tolerated. Special interests that benefit from the use of the government power are working to convince the public that there is not a problem. But I am living proof that there is a problem.

The battle against eminent domain abuse may have started as a way for me to save my salmon pink cottage, but it has rightly grown into something much larger: the fight to restore the American dream and the sanctity and security of each one of our homes. Thank you.

Manuel Miranda: I learned about this at 3:30 today so I haven’t written anything down, but I think I can cope with it.

I would like to thank the members of the board of the ACU, some of who have been very good friends and all of you who are disembodied voices on conference calls, e-mail names, who have been very supportive of everything we have done over the past two years, and I also want to take a moment to thank — she doesn’t know it, my former professor at Georgetown — Ambassador [Jeanne] Kirkpatrick. I believe the course was called “personality and politics.” And my very good friend, someone who has been very kind to me, Bob Novak, who first wrote about, and has used the power he has to make all the difference really.

Of course, I’m honored to share the award with you, Susie, and I hate to make it into a funny line, but I used to think that in this country a man’s humble home was his castle. Susie has shown that now a man’s humble home can be another man’s castle. And that just isn’t right, and I’ve said it on radio a score of times that Kelo was perhaps the worst decision of the court since Roe.

I got involved in this fight over the [Judge Charles] Pickering fight and I thought that was an absurd injustice. The man who had testified against the Klan at risk of his own life, at risk of his family’s life in the ’60s in Mississippi, was vilified as a racist. I just didn’t think it was right. And of course, Priscilla Owen, Janice Brown, and all the folks who were vilified, I didn’t think that was right.

But ultimately what has driven me, I’ll be very short, what has driven me in the past three years, on top of an instigation here or there to a fight, has been that I wasn’t born in this country. I also worked in Latin America for several years and studied the constitutions of other countries and legal systems. And I have come to know that our Constitution and our court system is one — just one perhaps — but a very important reason why this country is great.

And so anything that I have been doing is simply to say thank you to this country that took my mother and father and two young children. And I’ve always thought that that was true courage, my father and mother coming to a country and not speaking a word of English and doing great things. And so, I’m very grateful and awards are always really a way to thank a great many people not just the person who receives them. And so, if you applaud me again, I ask you to applaud my wife, who’s put up with a great deal.