Berman v. Parker
Significance: The Supreme Court interpreted the term “public use” to refer to any policy that reasonably promotes the public interest, providing legislatures with great discretion in deciding how to use the eminent domain power.
The District of Columbia Redevelopment Act of 1945 used the eminent domain power to condemn land for slum eradication and for beautification projects. Some of the land was sold to private developers, who developed it according to the urban renewal plan. A landowner challenged the constitutionality of the statute. He argued that the property was not taken for public use because it was sold to private interests and for the purpose of beautification. By a 9-0 vote, the Supreme Court upheld the statute. Speaking for the Court, Justice William O. Douglas suggested that eminent domain might be used to advance any of the legitimate purposes of government. The term “public use” did not imply that the property must be publicly owned or used directly by the general public. Reaffirming several Court precedents, Douglas wrote that the role of the judiciary in the matter is “extremely narrow.” The Court would not substitute its judgment for a legislature's judgment about what constitutes a public use, but it would insist only that the use must not be “palpably without reasonable foundation.” Subsequent decisions have endorsed Douglas's broad understanding of the public use doctrine, the most notable case being Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984).