"The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution says 'nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.' This is a tacit recognition of a preexisting power to take private property for public use, rather than a grant of new power."552 Eminent domain "appertains to every independent government. It requires no constitutional recognition; it is an attribute of sovereignty."553 In the early years of the nation the federal power of eminent domain lay dormant,554 and it was not until 1876 that its existence was recognized by the Supreme Court. In Kohl v. United States555 any doubts were laid to rest, as the Court affirmed that the power was as necessary to the existence of the National Government as it was to the existence of any State. The federal power of eminent domain is, of course, limited by the grants of power in the Constitution, so that property may only be taken for the effectuation of a granted power,556 but once this is conceded the ambit of national powers is so wide-ranging that vast numbers of objects may be effected.557 This prerogative of the National Government can neither be enlarged nor diminished by a State.558 Whenever lands in a State are needed for a public purpose, Congress may authorize that they be taken, either by proceedings in the courts of the State, with its consent, or by proceedings in the courts of the United States, with or without any consent or concurrent act of the State.559
552 United States v. Carmack, 329 U.S. 230, 241-42 (1946). The same is true of "just compensation" clauses in state constitutions. Boom Co. v. Patterson, 98 U.S. 403, 406 (1879). For in-depth analysis of the eminent domain power, see 1 NICHOLS' THE LAW OF EMINENT DOMAIN (J. Sackman, 3d rev. ed. 1973); and R. Meltz, When the United States Takes Property: Legal Principles, CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE REPORT 91-339 A (1991).
553 Boom Co. v. Patterson, 98 U.S. 403, 406 (1879).
554 Prior to this time, the Federal Government pursued condemnation proceedings in state courts and commonly relied on state law. Kohl v. United States, 91 U.S. 367, 373 (1876); United States v. Jones, 109 U.S. 513 (1883). The first general statutory authority for proceedings in federal courts was not enacted until 1888. Act of Aug. 1, 1888, ch. 728, 25 Stat. 357. See 1 NICHOLS' THE LAW OF EMINENT DOMAIN § 1.24 (J. Sackman, 3d rev. ed. 1973).
555 91 U.S. 367 (1876).
556 United States v. Gettysburg Electric Ry., 160 U.S. 668, 679 (1896).
557 E.g., California v. Central Pacific Railroad, 127 U.S. 1, 39 (1888) (highways); Luxton v. North River Bridge Co., 153 U.S. 525 (1894) (interstate bridges); Cherokee Nation v. Southern Kansas Ry., 135 U.S. 641 (1890) (railroads); Albert Hanson Lumber Co. v. United States, 261 U.S. 581 (1923) (canal); Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288 (1936) (hydroelectric power). "Once the object is within the authority of Congress, the right to realize it through the exercise of eminent domain is clear. For the power of eminent domain is merely the means to the end." Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26, 33 (1954).
558 Kohl v. United States, 91 U.S. 367 374 (1876).
559 Chappell v. United States, 160 U.S. 499, 510 (1896). The fact that land included in a federal reservoir project is owned by a state, or that its taking may impair the state's tax revenue, or that the reservoir will obliterate part of the state's boundary and interfere with the state's own project for water development and conservation, constitutes no barrier to the condemnation of the land by the United States. Oklahoma ex rel. Phillips v. Guy F. Atkinson Co., 313 U.S. 508 (1941). So too, land held in trust and used by a city for public purposes may be condemned. United States v. Carmack, 329 U.S. 230 (1946).
"Prior to the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment," the power of eminent domain of state governments "was unrestrained by any federal authority."560 The just compensation provision of the Fifth Amendment did not apply to the States,561 and at first the contention that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment afforded property owners the same measure of protection against the States as the Fifth Amendment did against the Federal Government was rejected.562 However, within a decade the Court rejected the opposing argument that the amount of compensation to be awarded in a state eminent domain case is solely a matter of local law. On the contrary, the Court ruled, although a state "legislature may prescribe a form of procedure to be observed in the taking of private property for public use, . . . it is not due process of law if provision be not made for compensation… The mere form of the proceeding instituted against the owner . . . cannot convert the process used into due process of law, if the necessary result be to deprive him of his property without compensation."563 While the guarantees of just compensation flow from two different sources, the standards used by the Court in dealing with the issues appear to be identical, and both federal and state cases will be dealt with herein without expressly continuing to recognize the two different bases for the rulings.
It should be borne in mind that while the power of eminent domain, though it is inherent in organized governments, may only be exercised through legislation or through legislative delegation, usually to another governmental body, the power may be delegated as well to private corporations, such as public utilities, railroad and bridge companies, when they are promoting a valid public purpose. Such delegation has long been approved.564
560 Green v. Frazier, 253 U.S. 233, 238 (1920).
561 Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 243 (1833).
562 Davidson v. City of New Orleans, 96 U.S. 97 (1878). The Court attached most weight to the fact that both due process and just compensation were guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment while only due process was contained in the Fourteenth, and refused to equate the missing term with the present one.
563 Chicago B. & Q. R.R. v. City of Chicago, 166 U.S. 226, 233, 236-37 (1897). See also Sweet v. Rechel, 159 U.S. 380, 398 (1895).
564 Noble v. Oklahoma City, 297 U.S. 481 (1936); Luxton v. North River Bridge Co., 153 U.S. 525 (1895). One of the earliest examples is Curtiss v. Georgetown & Alexandria Turnpike Co., 10 U.S. (6 Cr.) 233 (1810).
Last modified: June 9, 2014