public use

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The right of the public to use property that was once privately owned after it has been taken by the federal or state government through its eminent domain power. The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment establishes the government’s power to take privately owned land, so long as the owner is fairly compensated, and it mandates that any property taken (or “condemned”) must be for a public use.

The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment reads as follows: “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

As a result, public use is one of two main factors used to evaluate the legality of a taking by the government–the other being the adequacy of compensation.

Examples of public uses include infrastructure and services, like public schools, public utilities, parks, and transit operations.

Some jurisdictions define public use to mean “public benefit” or “public advantage”. Other jurisdictions limit its meaning to actual use by the public (“public employment”).

Three of the most well-known landmark cases concerning public use are:

United States v. Gettysburg Electric Railroad Company (1896): The Supreme Court established lawfulness of condemnation of nearly any piece of land, with compensation. Justice Peckham stated that when it came to public use, “No narrow view of the character of this proposed use should be taken. Its national character and importance, we think, are plain.”

Berman v. Parker (1954): In this case, a department store owner did not want the government to take his land to redevelop a blighted housing district. The Supreme Court unanimously held, by delivery of Justice Douglas, that because the Fifth Amendment does not specify what land must be used for besides “public use”, Congress has the power to decide what the use might be. The majority also stated, concerning limits on the amount of land that could be condemned, that “once the question of the public purpose has been decided, the amount and character of land to be taken for the project and the need for a particular tract to complete the integrated plan rests in the discretion of the legislative branch.”

Kelo v. City of New London (2005): The plaintiff in this case sued the city of New London, Connecticut for seizing her property under eminent domain and transferring it to the New London Development Corporation. She alleged that the seizure of her property was a violation of the “public use” element of the Fifth Amendment takings clause because the land would be used for economic development by a private firm. The U.S Supreme Court ultimately ruled 5-4 against the plaintiff and upheld aspects of its own ruling in Berman v. Parker. It held that redistributing the land as part of a detailed economic plan fulfilled the public use requirement, according to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 8-816, because the increase in economic welfare that would result from the development would improve the public welfare of the citizens of Connecticut. To arrive at its conclusion, the Court used a more expansive definition of “public use” and did not confine the concept to literal usage by the public, but viewed it broadly to include public benefit or general welfare.

Related terms:

[Last updated in November of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]