Can the government seize the property of a private citizen? In fact, the government’s right to expropriate private property for public use is called eminent domain and is very much a real occurrence. In fact, the term "eminent domain" was taken from the legal treatise De Jure Belli et Pacis, written by the Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius in 1625. In the legal treatise, Grotius used the term dominium eminens (Latin for supreme lordship) and described the power as follows:
"... The property of subjects is under the eminent domain of the state, so that the state or he who acts for it may use and even alienate and destroy such property, not only in the case of extreme necessity, in which even private persons have a right over the property of others, but for ends of public utility, to which ends those who founded civil society must be supposed to have intended that private ends should give way. But it is to be added that when this is done the state is bound to make good the loss to those who lose their property."
1. Kohl v. The United States
The U.S. Supreme Court first examined federal eminent domain power in 1876. This case presented a landowner’s challenge to the power of the United States to condemn land in Cincinnati, Ohio for use as a customhouse and post office building. Justice William Strong called the authority of the federal government to appropriate property for public uses “essential to its independent existence and perpetuity.” The court ruled that it is necessary for the government to be able to seize property for its uses, such as creating infrastructure, which ultimately are determined by the legislature and not the judiciary. This essentially gives the government ultimate ownership over all property, because it’s not viable for the government to hold out against the obstinence of private individuals to appropriate land for government uses. This power of eminent domain is not only a privilege of the federal, but also state governments.
2. Kelo v. City of New London
Back in 2005, the Supreme Court of the United Sates decided the case of Kelo v. City of New London. The case involved the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private owner to another private owner to further economic development. In a 5–4 decision in favor of the City of New London, written by Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court held that the general benefits a community enjoyed from economic growth, qualified private redevelopment plans as a permissible "public use” under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The case arose in the context of condemnation by the city of New London, Connecticut, of privately owned real property, so that it could be used as part of a “comprehensive redevelopment plan.” However, the private developer was unable to obtain financing and abandoned the redevelopment project, leaving the land as an undeveloped empty lot.
3. United States v. Gettysburg Electric Railway Co.
Eminent domain has been utilized traditionally to facilitate transportation. The dispute began in August 1891 when the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association’s board approved attorney Samuel Swope’s motion to deny trolley right-of-way along GBMA roads. Near the end of the 19th century, tourists would typically arrive by train and paid fees for horse-drawn jitney taxis to travel to the 1863 Gettysburg Battlefield on primitive wagon roads of the private Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA). Congress wanted to acquire land to preserve the site of the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania. The railroad company that owned some of the property in question contested this action. Ultimately, the Court opined that the federal government has the power to condemn property “whenever it is necessary or appropriate to use the land in the execution of any of the powers granted to it by the constitution.”
4. United States v. Chandler-Dunbar Co.
Eminent domain was also used for supply waters, and the maintenance of navigable waters. So unfettered was the control of Congress over navigable streams of the country, that its judgment as to whether a construction in or over such a river was or was not an obstacle and a hindrance to navigation, is conclusive. Such judgment and determination is the exercise of legislative power in respect of a subject wholly within its control. In U. S. v. Chandler-Dunbar Co., the government acquired upland property that was located on the St. Mary's river, the outlet of Lake Superior. The property owner was a power company, and it argued that its property was more valuable because it the site was suitable for hydroelectric power. The United States refused to pay any enhanced value for the ability to generate power from the location. The Supreme Court rejected the claim.
5. Albert Hanson Lumber Company v. United States
In this case in the early 1900’s, the United States instituted condemnation proceedings in the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, to acquire a strip of land 300 feet wide, named Hanson Canal. Judgment was given condemning the property and vesting title in the United States when the amount found in favor of the owner shall have been paid. The judgment was affirmed after the owner took the case to the Circuit Court. The owner contended that the District Court and Circuit Court of Appeals erred in holding that the acts of Congress relied upon by the government confer authority to condemn the canal proper and the land adjacent to and outside the limits within a strip of a total width of 300 feet inclusive of the canal.