In a decision with far-reaching consequences for property owners, the U.S. Supreme Court has removed a significant legal barrier that for decades effectively barred landowners from challenging local ordinances in federal court.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in the case of Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania on June 21 opens the federal courts to property owners seeking “just compensation” under the Fifth Amendment for the taking of their property by government for a public purpose.
Property owners’ access to federal courts had been effectively blocked since 1985, when the Supreme Court, in what is known as its Williamson County precedent, ruled landowners must first bring takings claims against local governments to state courts before proceeding to federal court.
‘A Catch 22’
For property owners, the decision in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City created a Catch-22 situation. Under a subsequent Supreme Court ruling, a federal court generally must defer to a state court’s resolution of a claim for just compensation. Property owners faced the daunting prospect of spending years in litigation in state courts, with little hope of ever receiving their day in court at the federal level.
“The takings plaintiff thus finds himself in a Catch-22,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “He cannot go to the federal court without going to the state court first; but if he goes to the state court and loses, his claim will be barred in federal court. The federal claim dies aborning.”
In reversing the 34-year-old Williamson County precedent, the Supreme Court will allow takings plaintiffs to bring their cases to federal court and, if successful, receive the just compensation guaranteed them under the Constitution.
“We now conclude that the state-litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden on takings plaintiffs, conflicts with the rest of our takings jurisprudence, and must be overruled,” Roberts stated.
‘Level Judicial Playing Field’
The case that led to the reversal of the Williamson County decision involved Rose Mary Knick, owner of a 90-acre property in eastern Pennsylvania on which a county inspector suspected graves were located. Knick challenged the government’s application of a 2012 ordinance by the Scott Township requiring cemeteries “be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.”
If she failed to comply, Knick faced fines of between $300 and $600 per day. The ordinance, Knick argued, constituted a taking of her property, and she filed a claim in federal court. Both the federal district court and appellate court, citing Williamson County, said she could not bring the suit without going through state proceedings first.
Many takings cases involve landowners in rural areas, who generally do not have the financial resources to bring their claims to court, much less run the risk of being caught in the state courts’ Catch 22 imposed by Williamson County, says Mary-Elizabeth Wilkerson, outreach coordinator for Save Fauquier, a property rights group.
“Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling, we now have something approaching a level judicial playing field, one that gives the property owner a legitimate shot at receiving just compensation,” said Wilkerson.
The Williamson County decision disadvantaged property owners seeking just compensation in takings cases, says Craig Rucker, president of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.
“This decision lifts a burden that had been weighing on property owners for 34 years,” said Rucker. “The deck in the court system was stacked against them. In terms of making takings claims, they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan expressed concern the majority’s decision would “channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into the federal courts.” The increased access to the courts is a good thing, says Rucker.
“The prospect that the courts may now be flooded with takings cases is to be welcomed, because it may deter governments from seizing private property in the first place,” said Rucker.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a policy analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT).
Chief Justice John Roberts, Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, et al., Docket No. 17-647, U.S. Supreme Court, June 21, 2019: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/us-supreme-court-opinion-knick-v-township-of-scott-penn