How Eminent Domain Works

The Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings on the Kelo v. New London property rights issue.
The Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings on the Kelo v. New London property rights issue.
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If you've ever visited your childhood home only to find it's been replaced by a strip mall or widened road, then you may be experiencing the effects of eminent domain. Backed by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, your state government has power over all property in the state -- both private and public. With this power comes the right for the government to take your home or business, pay you fair value and tear it down for public use. This typically means that roads, courthouses, schools and utilities can be erected on the land your home or business sits on. It can also mean private commercial development that's considered a benefit to the community.

The Fifth Amendment states that private property can't be taken for public use without just compensation. This establishes that private land can be taken for public use without the consent of the landowner, as long as he or she is fairly compensated. In the early days of eminent domain, it was mainly used to support large-scale public works operations. The growing freeway system after World War II is a good example of how the government used eminent domain to accomplish necessary development for the good of the country.

In the early 1980s, a Michigan Supreme Court ruling allowed more than 1,000 homes and 600 businesses to be razed to make way for a General Motors auto plant. The town where the plant was built didn't experience the economic boom developers expected. In what can only be considered a "too little, too late" decision, the high court reversed the GM ruling more than twenty years after the homes and businesses were torn down [source: PBS].

In recent years, there's been a great deal of debate about what the government defines as "for the public good." Using eminent domain for schools, roads and courthouses has given way to developers looking to build condos and retail outlet malls. The Supreme Court weighed in with a landmark decision that paves the way for even more wide-reaching definitions of public good.

In this article, we'll learn about the eminent domain process and examine some recent abuses of these powers.

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