Eminent Domain

Alan Cai

September 23, 2022

Eminent Domain, a process in which private property is taken with “just compensation,” has been a little mentioned yet frequently utilized tool used by the government and corporations to take property from individuals. This article aims to discuss and explain the circumstances for why this happens, and possible repercussions of the practice.

In a more official capacity, eminent domain is a process in which property rights are transferred from one entity to another for “public use” as specified by the United States Constitution, specifically in the fifth amendment. States generally have the right to determine the extent of this “public use” and Congress may pass acts transferring property rights. This authority may additionally be granted to utilities, railroads, corporations, and other entities through the legislature.

Congress does not automatically appropriate compensation for property loss. The loss must be claimed by property owners through the United States Court of Federal Claims. Frequently, these processes are slow and expensive. It also sets the standard that statutory mandates must first be broken before being rectified. Although this has been a precedent for the majority of American history and is technically the most efficient method from the legislative standpoint, it only adds insult to the injury of abruptly losing property.

An example of residents losing property and undergoing a long legal process afterward to recover from it is the Ranchos of California after the Mexican American War and subsequent Treaty of Guadalupe. Although not permitted by the legislature, squatters did settle on privately owned property, which still legally belonged to its owners. Following an arduous legal process, only a fraction of those who challenged the illegal squatters succeeded and all who tried lost fortunes.

Eminent domain has also been used for various controversial projects that do not necessarily benefit the public. Since the early 2000s, the California state government has seized dozens of private properties for the development of high-speed rail, a project that is far from finished and will not necessarily benefit the public good. In 1999, the City of Toledo, Ohio abruptly classified 83 homes and 16 businesses as slums in order to seize the properties and grant it to Chrysler for a factory. In 2005, the City of New London, Connecticut was explicitly granted permission from the Supreme Court to stretch the bounds of “public purposes” to include seizing private property for the purpose of converting it into larger commercial developments, an act that would likely benefit the local economy.

Eminent domain, since its inception, has been frequently abused and stretched. The procedure for taking property is archaic and inefficient while the bounds for which an act could be considered “public good” has been contorted and stretched. The transfer of property rights forcefully must have a cleaner and fairer process and become more limited to strictly beneficial activities.