Eminent domain, a term that derives from the Latin eminenes dominium, refers to the power of government to take private property and convert it to public use. In the late 18th century, the drafters of the United States Constitution – virtually all of them wealthy landowners – wanted a guarantee that eminent domain would be used responsibility in their newly founded country. It was largely out of that concern that the “Takings Clause” of the Fifth Amendment was born. This clause limits the government’s power of eminent domain by expressly requiring “just compensation” to be paid. Although initially only applicable to the federal government, the Takings Clause has applied with equal force to the states since 1897 when the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. v. City of Chicago. The history of eminent domain in the United States is arguably best explored by looking at several of the more prominent eminent domain cases that the Supreme Court has decided:
Kohl v. United States (1875)
This is the very first eminent domain case to reach the Supreme Court and it established the importance of eminent domain to a rapidly growing industrialized country. Writing for the Court, Justice William Strong said that the federal government’s eminent domain authority is “essential to its independent existence and perpetuity.”
Berman v. Parker (1954)
The Takings Clause states that “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” In Berman v. Parker, the Court ruled that taking private property for a public purpose was also permissible under the Fifth Amendment. The case arose out of a Congressional plan to clean up blighted parts of Washington, D.C. that authorized transferring private land to private developers. Interpreting public use to also mean public purpose had a significant impact on the development of American eminent domain law as the follow two cases illustrate.
Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984)
In the 1960s, the Hawaii legislature sought to break up a historical land oligopoly that it saw as detrimental to the state’s real estate market and harmful to the public welfare in general. The land reform act that it adopted authorized breaking up several large estates and transferring fee simple ownership in them to the current tenants. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Hawaii could lawfully transfer land ownership in this manner as it was a rational way to correct a market failure and benefit the residents of Hawaii at large.
Kelo v. City of New London (2005)
This is a landmark yet still controversial decision in which the Supreme Court held that private property could be taken through eminent domain as long as it was necessary to further a comprehensive economic development plan. In response, nearly half of the states introduced legislation limiting their ability to invoke eminent domain in the manner that was allowed in Kelo.
Inverse Condemnation & Regulatory Takings
Two concepts that are important to understand when it comes to eminent domain are inverse condemnation and regulatory takings. The term inverse condemnation refers to a situation in which government takes private property without paying compensation, requiring the land owner to seek compensation through a lawsuit. A regulatory taking, by contrast, is a government regulation that limits the use of private property to such an extent that it practically constitutes a taking. In the 1922 case of Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, the Supreme Court established the general principle that a regulation will be recognized as a taking if it “goes too far.”
Speak with a California Eminent Domain Lawyer at Palmieri, Hennessey & Leifer LLP Today
The above information is intended as a general overview of eminent domain law in the United States. If you, personally, are being affected by eminent domain, then consider exploring what legal options might be available to you with the help of a California eminent domain lawyer at Palmieri, Hennessey & Leifer. Our law firm in Irvine, CA, proudly helps property and business owners successfully navigate the complexities of eminent domain litigation and related real estate and land use matters. Call us at 949-851-7388 or submit this online contact form.