William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal


Desperate times may breed desperate measures, but when do desperate measures undertaken as a response to an emergency trigger the Fifth Amendment’s requirement that the government provides just compensation when it takes private property for public use? The answer to that question has commonly been posed as a choice between the “police power”—a sovereign government’s power to regulate property’s use in order to further the public health, safety, and welfare—and the eminent domain power, the authority to seize private property for public use with the corresponding requirement to pay compensation. But that should not be the question. After all, emergencies do not increase government power, nor do they necessarily alter constitutional rights, and an invocation of police power by itself does not solve the compensation question but is merely the predicate issue: all governmental actions must be for the public health, safety, or welfare, in the same way that an exercise of the eminent domain power must be for a public use.

This Article provides a roadmap for analyzing these questions, hoping that it will result in a more consistent approach for resolving claims for compensation that arise out of claims of emergencies. This Article analyzes the potential takings claims stemming from emergency measures, mostly under the current takings doctrine. Which types of claims are likely to succeed or fail? In “normal” times, it is very difficult to win a regulatory takings claim for compensation. In the midst of emergencies—real or perceived—the courts are even more reluctant to provide a remedy, even when they should, and emergencies are a good time to make bad law, especially in takings law. Can a better case be made analytically for compensation?

In sum, this Article argues there is no blanket immunity from the requirement to provide just compensation when property is taken simply because the government claims to be acting in response to an emergency, even though its actions and reasons may satisfy the rational basis test. Instead, claims that the taking is not compensable because of the exigency of an emergency should only win the day if the government successfully shows that the measure was actually needed to avoid imminent danger posed by the property owner’s use and that the restriction on use was narrowly tailored to further that end.