Consider the following. One day out of the blue, you receive a letter from the State of Michigan, which says that your house is directly in the path of a new expressway, the state will be buying your home, and you’ll have to move.

 You say to yourself, “How can this happen?”

 The answer is “eminent domain.”

 The following is a very brief summary and history.

 The power of eminent domain is found in the Fifth Amendment under a provision commonly referred to as the “Takings Clause,” which allows the government to take property for a public use after paying just compensation.

 In Michigan, this power has been recognized from the time we were a territory in 1787 and in all Michigan constitutions since statehood in 1837.

 The general standard for Michigan governments to exercise this power had been that as long as it could be shown that the taking was necessary for a “public use” and not primarily for private gain, it would be allowed.

 In 1981, this changed somewhat when the Michigan Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of Poletown Neighborhood Council v City of Detroit and held that the city could condemn property in Hamtramck and Detroit for a new General Motors plant and then transfer the property to G.M. as long as it was for a “public purpose.” The public purpose was for economic development and employment in a very distressed economy. The definition of public use was thus expanded.

 This decision was cited as authority by some courts in other states.

 The Michigan Supreme Court reversed Poletown in 2004 and held that public use does not include private economic development.

 The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that this was a sufficient justification for eminent domain but also indicated that states could have more restrictive laws.

 In 2006, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment providing that private property could only be taken for a public use and specifically excluded private property economic development or increased tax revenue as a rationale.

 The law continues to evolve here especially as to the meaning of public use, but at least if you ever get one of those letters hopefully you’ll have a better understanding of how this works. 

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