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THIS is an account of an eminent-domain dispute that became a landmark Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. City of New London - though much like the legal case itself, the court's role is virtually incidental to the tale.

That's because long before the court determined in 2005 that a town in Connecticut could use the "takings clause" of the Fifth Amendment to seize private homes in order to transform a lunch-pail community into a hip urban center, this case had been tried and decided in the court of made-for-TV movies.

The story of a little pink house in New London and its determined owner launched a thousand enraged editorials, galvanized a movement to condemn Justice David Souter's New Hampshire home and eventually led more than 40 state legislatures to change their laws on eminent domain. Throughout this ruckus, the court's actual opinion was so much constitutional wallpaper.

"Little Pink House" is the story of Susette Kelo, who left a loveless marriage in 1997 to renovate a tiny Victorian water-front house. Kelo quickly found herself on the wrong end of an ambitious plan to turn her neighborhood into a vast corporate playground for Pfizer Inc, complete with a luxury hotel, a health club and sleek condos.

The investigative reporter Jeff Benedict has decided to cast Kelo in the style of Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich. But this comes at some journalistic cost: by the time he's finished introducing us to his protagonist (who "had a body that defied the fact that she had delivered five children. Her fiery red hair ran all the way down to her waist"), he risks having written the world's first bodice-ripper about the takings clause.

Still, Benedict has pieced together a fascinating narrative, using e-mail messages, planning documents, interviews and personal diaries to produce a sordid account of ruthless politicians working hand-in-medical-glove with big business to drive hard-working Americans from their homes.

Susette Kelo's reluctant transformation from shy nursing student to national property rights hero contrasts strikingly with the Cruella De Vil machinations of Claire Gaudiani, the head of the New London Development Corporation. In Benedict's telling, Gaudiani's penchant for seductive clothing and academic doublespeak makes her a perfect foil for the naive Susette. Cutting deals with local politicians, Pfizer executives and the governor's office, Gaudiani is the face of progress at any cost.

Benedict strives for balance, but balance here consists of toggling back and forth between Kelo's story and that of the powerful interests seeking to crush her. The law itself barely gets a walk-on bit, with the Supreme Court's analysis of the case accorded less than a paragraph.

To be sure, Benedict notes that Connecticut law puts property owners at a disadvantage in such disputes. But echoing the Institute for Justice, the Washington law firm that fought Kelo's case, he persistently frames legal questions as epic battles between haves and have-nots, between passionate humans and out-of-touch jurists.

As a story about injustice, "Little Pink House" is a success. Nobody can be immune to the plucky redhead, the zany deli owner or the terrified senior citizens, battling to live quietly in the homes they love. But to the extent that this is a story about the justice system, it's built on preconceptions about the cold inhumanity of the law.

With little regard for the possibility that judges might base decisions on cases and state statutes, Benedict implies it was judicial whim or ideology that knocked down Kelo's community, and that by failing to vote for Kelo the justice system betrayed her.

Pitting an all-too-human Kelo against "five strangers in black robes" is a convenient frame for the narrative but it's also dangerous, as Kelo learned when, in the swirl of publicity surrounding the decision, she began getting calls from militia groups offering to help protect her home with guns.

After almost a decade of fighting, Kelo's little pink house was disassembled and relocated to a different hilltop with a different water view. It's hardly a story-book ending, but then so few cases like that end up in the Supreme Court.

Perhaps it's better for everyone that, when faced with the choice between delivering made-for-TV resolutions and dispassionately applying state law, courts generally seek to apply the rule of law.


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