Eminent Domain Definition.


Eminent Domain

Eminent domain is a specialized term that only comes up in the news every so often. It is not a very popular topic, and when the news mentions it, that is usually in a pretty controversial context.

Meaning of Eminent Domain

In short, eminent domain is the power of a government entity – the scale and location of which can range from local to national – to take private land for a public purpose.

For obvious reasons, it is not always popular. However, the government can do this usually if it deems that the purpose for which the land will be taken, such as to build roads, is appropriate and justified.

Most governments who take someone’s land do so but also compensate them for it. The fair price is often derived by examining existing prices of real estate in that and other similar areas.

The power to do this in the United States comes from the Fifth Amendment to the Bill of Rights.

It contains the Takings Clause, which is the part of the amendment that allows for the US Federal Government to take private land for a “public use”. It does not define what it means by “public use”, but it does say that people must be given “just compensation”.

The Controversy

There are times when the government will delegate the responsibility of developing this land to another actor, including private corporations. This is so that they can outsource the work to someone who perhaps specializes in that particular task.

However, the controversy comes when the land rights go to a private company for a private purpose – and that thing just happens to also have a public benefit.

In 2005, this concept was tested in the United States Supreme Court. The case was Kelo v. City of New London, in which the sides were arguing about whether the eminent domain power reached too far.

The city government in the case wanted to grant private land to a private company, arguing that the “public benefit” was that jobs would be created.


  • Even though there were many people who refused to move, the government used their power of eminent domain to force them out so they could build a large prison on that ground.
  • The only bright spot about having our homes and land taken away under the eminent domain power is that we will be compensated fairly for it.


April: Good afternoon, Ms. Thompson. I understand that you wanted to talk to me about a legal dispute you are having?

Ms. Thompson: Hi April, yes. Yesterday, I had two people claiming to be from the state government. They notified me that they were going to take my land! They said something about eminent domain?

April: That is an unusual request, because the government doesn’t often use that power. Did they give you any more information? Especially about what they would use the land for?

Ms. Thompson: I think they mentioned something about building a train station here since it is so centrally located in the city. What does that have to do with eminent domain?

April: Well, the eminent domain power of the government is limited. It allows them to take private land and pay you a fair rate for it, but they can’t just do it so they own the land. It has to be used for a public purpose, and needs to be something that really benefits the whole community. Otherwise, it’s just too big of a cost to ask one person to pay.

Ms. Thompson: Oh, that makes sense. But I guess the train station would be open for all the residents and travelers of the city to use, so that would be a public purpose, right?

April: Yes, it would. That fulfills that requirement for exercising the eminent domain power. However, they need to provide more details about that before they can file the correct papers. They need to prove that the train station would be accessible to everyone in the city, and that they are not causing you excess harm through the process. This could refer to anything, including not having anywhere to live, displacing you from the city and causing you to lose your job, and other things like that.

Ms. Thompson: Okay, so what do you propose? Do I have a case here? Would I be able to fight it, especially with my other neighbors?

April: It’s definitely possible. However, at this point it is still too early to tell. The best thing to do right now is to make whatever preparations you need to in case this really does happen. In the meantime, record all the communiques you get from government officials about this, and ask them questions about what they will help you with. We can reevaluate the situation later to see if you have a case.

Ms. Thompson: That sounds good. Thank you so much!

Related phrasal verbs

Exercise eminent domain

By definition, only a government can exercise eminent domain. By this, it means that the government decided to use its ability to take a private property and use it for a public purpose. Most powers that a government has can be described by the “exercise” of it.

  • Over the past ten years, the government has tried to exercise eminent domain to the effect of taxing the rich; unfortunately, they have only increased the gap in wealth between the upper and lower classes.
  • The government can exercise eminent domain to turn the only suitable place in town into a large public park, but if they try to pass off that land to a private company to make the park, they will run into legal problems.

Justify something with eminent domain

If the government has done something where they take private property, the first thing they might try to do is to justify the action with eminent domain.

In other words, they could try to argue that they had the legal right to do that because they can get the private property through their powers of eminent domain. This might or might not work, but they can claim that power to see if it makes sense.

  • The government contractor tried to justify their mistake with eminent domain, but they forgot that the power applies only to governments, not their contractors.
  • The state government justified their actions with eminent domain; the citizens were angry but they had no legal authority to challenge the action.

Synonyms for Eminent Domain


In the United States Constitution, the part of the text that allows for eminent domain is also known as the Takings Clause. This is essentially the name of the action of carrying out eminent domain, where the government takes the private property that they need.

  • The taking of the land of the poor was a point of contention for the governmental administration’s critics.
  • The government took more land than they needed to build their railway, but they were not legally required to give it back.

Compulsory purchase

In the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Ireland, the power of eminent domain is instead known as compulsory purchase. However, the premise of the power is similar.

  • The British courts decided that compulsory purchase was a suitable justification for the government takeover of the small island.
  • New Zealand’s battles with compulsory purchase are few, but they have been as controversial as those in other countries.


In the Chinese Special Administrative Region Hong Kong and in Australia, the power of eminent domain is referred to as resumption.

  • People in Hong Kong resist when the Chinese government tries to exercise its power of resumption.
  • Resumption is not a common justification of government action.

Compulsory Acquisition

Australians also call this power compulsory acquisition.

  • The compulsory acquisition of my father’s old store made my brother so angry he became a lawyer, specifically representing people who have been wronged by the government.
  • There were enough protests of the government’s attempt to use compulsory acquisition that they eventually just gave up and changed their city development plans.


In France, Italy, Mexico, South Africa, Canada, Brazil, Portugal, and Spain, eminent domain is instead expropriation.

  • When the French government tried to take land using expropriation near the border with Spain, the Spanish government started taking a serious interest in the news.
  • The laws of the country surrounding the expropriation powers of local and state governments is unclear, but the federal government clearly has this ability.

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