History of Eminent Domain

Property rights are human rights!

Eminent Domain is the tangled vine of governmental authority whose roots stretch all the way back to the Middle Ages, when European monarchs suspended the rights of citizens at will in order to condemn their property for use by the state. The very term “eminent domain” is derived from a Latin phrase meaning “supreme lordship.”

In the United States, the founding fathers sought to cut ties with such feudal-era governments and limit the power of the state, thereby drafting the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which reads in part:
“No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

In 1832, the Supreme Court expanded the term “public use” to include not only the physical occupation of land, but also its use for public benefit. The Fourteenth Amendment later narrowed the scope of eminent domain in the United States by limiting not only the federal government’s power, but also that of the states. The “Due Process” clause, as it is known, reads in part:
“…nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”

Now, the states themselves determine what constitutes a public use. In eminent domain, private property is taken either for government use or to be delegated to a third party for a civic or public purpose. In return, individuals are given just compensation – the commonly agreed-upon fair market value – for their property.

Land is typically condemned for use by government agencies to build roads, freeways, dams, pipelines, and provide access to public utilities; however, local and state governments often use eminent domain to transfer ownership of land to private developers who build shopping malls, housing developments, or hotels.

The history of eminent domain in America does not hold the individual in high regard. Despite the Constitution’s guarantee of due process of law, it is the property owners who are saddled with the burden of proof when it comes to defending the right to their own land. Government agencies, on the other hand, need only declare the land’s vague necessity to some public work.