What would stop the government from replacing Georgetown University with corporate office space for the Philip Morris Tobacco Company? Absolutely nothing, except that Philip Morris doesn’t need any more office space. What would prevent the local government from seizing your home and building a new stadium in its place? Absolutely nothing, except that the city doesn’t need a new stadium.

But wait a second; they are looking for a place for a new stadium.

Eminent domain refers to the government’s ability to rescind an individual’s land for just compensation as long as the public uses it.

The Fifth Amendment prevents the government from taking land unless it meets the requirements listed above. The Fourteenth Amendment furthers the government’s power by extending the right of eminent domain to state and local governments.

Recent cases, beginning with the 1954 ruling in Berman v. Parker, expand the government’s authority of eminent domain. Urban renewal and other city restoration projects are justified under eminent domain. The government can now take the land and resell it to another private company or developer, if the net economic outcome is in the plus.

The most recent case adjudicated by the Supreme Court, Kelo v. New London, has brought eminent domain once again to the forefront of American politics. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the city of New London’s right to eminent domain. The Supreme Court ruling is considered outrageous by many groups, including the Institute of Justice, which helped represent the defense.

The controversy over the issue is ironic considering that, according to Daniel Krisch, the attorney who represented New London, the ruling did nothing to alter existing law. In fact, the only difference with previous jurisdictions was the Supreme Court’s new interpretation of “public use” to mean “public purpose.” This new interpretation broadens the scope of government power to invoke eminent domain when dealing with private businesses and corporate giants. So why all of a sudden is this issue so controversial? No new law has been created! Eminent domain has been functioning within our Constitution for several hundred years!

Eminent domain is currently an unchecked government power, but one that should only be used as a necessary and final option.

The purpose of the founders’ inclusion of eminent domain was to prevent the oppression of the government that they had been subject to from England. Unless Congress is secretly organizing a new Stamp Act, it is clear that the isolated cases in our nation today are far from the oppression suffered by the colonists.

As one can obviously see, however, the rule of eminent domain is in need of clarification. The criteria I stated above involved four words, “just compensation” and “public use.” Is that enough to describe a law of the United States, especially one that involves infringing on personal rights?

In light of the gravity of confiscating an individual’s property, these vague criteria are what make eminent domain so controversial. Eminent domain cases are decided on a case-by-case basis, and the courts have not laid out specific criteria that merit what is permitted under eminent domain.

The solution is simple yet elusive; the law of eminent domain must be included, but a clause slightly limiting the government’s power would provide an essential balance between the necessity of the institution and the potential for the government to overstep its power. If eminent domain could only be utilized as a final resort, and if this were the mindset of the courts, then many decisions permitting unjust land grabs would be prevented. The Michigan Supreme Court, for example, ruled in 1981 that over 1,000 residences could be destroyed to construct a General Motors manufacturing plant. This decision was only recently overturned in 2004.

Eminent domain cases are intricate and protracted, and no discussion in a brief analysis can fully cover all aspects of the issue. For now, the media coverage attracted by Kelo v. New London has refocused the public’s attention on eminent domain. It is safe to say that eminent domain remains in need of reform and clarification. So while Georgetown University will not be turning into a giant Abercrombie and Fitch (although sometimes it already looks like one) or Walmart’s new mega 25-acre superstore any time soon, the threat of eminent domain still remains and threatens all private property.

Michael Birrer is a sophomore in the College.

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