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Eminent domain (a.k.a. takings) is the term used to describe the appropriation of private property by some level of government. In the United States, the source for this government power is the Fifth Amendment, which states "private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation." Eminent domain is rooted in feudal notions of land tenure, where all land in a nation is legally owned by the sovereign and therefore the sovereign can, within the limits of the law, do whatever they want with it.
Needless to say, this power is deeply unpopular with a vast swath of the citizenry, and while opposition to it is loudest among conservatives and Constitutionalists, nobody likes it when people take their stuff. Though the legal history of eminent domain goes back roughly 130 years, there is an active movement resisting it, and several high profile legal cases have recently been decided, mostly supporting the government.
An important part of eminent domain is that the government (or any private or semi-private corporation they delegate power to) must only take private property for a project for public use — such as a highway, railway etc. However, in many jurisdictions private developers have been the beneficiaries, and take land for the purpose of making obscene amounts of money. This has become exacerbated in the US in recent years by the Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, which allowed the destruction of privately-held property in order to replace it with other private property as long as the community benefited from its economic growth. Thus, eminent domain is currently an issue that, while legally supported, is popular with very little of the public.
Notably, the New York Times was involved in an eminent domain case that took a bit more than two decades to go through. The NY Times got the state to condemn land for its new building, using the excuse of redevelopment of a "blighted" area, which is located right across from the Port Authority bus terminal, thus making it the 3rd most valuable real estate area in New York City (after Penn Station and the Financial District). They had further claimed that it was in the public interest, as required by the Fifth Amendment, because by having a major business built in the area it would raise tax revenue. This would have been true if anyone under 50 ever bought a newspaper. Normally, you expect the price to go up if the owner doesn't want to sell, but eminent domain doesn't work that way. Without the power of eminent domain, a property owner could essentially extort taxpayer money from the government by refusing to sell. This case shows the problems with defining "public use", and has extra irony in that if the system is being abusive, your best recourse is often through the media, but when the media itself is the one causing the abuse, what can you do?
It's worth noting that some state laws are more restrictive of the power of eminent domain than others. For example, some states must compensate a property owner for damaging property while others (and the Fifth Amendment) don't have that requirement.
- The Bill of Rights
- "FindLaw: National Eminent Domain Power." FindLaw. 2012.
- "Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide." The Castle Coalition. 2012.
- Damon W. Root. "When Public Power Is Used for Private Gain." Reason Foundation. 2009 October 8.
- The story behind Kelo v. City of New London – how an obscure takings case got to the Supreme Court and shocked the nation. Washington Post
- CBS News