Supreme Court Allows Fast Tracking of Property Rights Cases

Published August 2, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled property owners may immediately file suit in federal court to challenge state or local government actions that restrict their property rights, without first going through the state court system.

The decision in Knick v. Township of Scott focused on when a taking becomes effective: when the government passes a law or regulation restricting property use, or only later, after fines are threatened or imposed or financial compensation is denied in state court.

Grave Access

In 2012, Scott Township in Pennsylvania passed an ordinance requiring anyone with a cemetery on their property to open the area to the public during daylight hours. Town officials then found several stones on Rose Mary Knick’s farmland which the town claimed were grave markers. Knick disputed the town’s claim, saying there was no evidence there was a cemetery on her property.

The ordinance required Knick to maintain her property as if it were a public cemetery, including trimming grass and pruning shrubs regularly, and open her land to the public for visitation. Knick faced fines ranging from $300 to $1,200 a day for failing to comply. Township officials refused to compensate Knick for any of these demands.

Knick sued in state court, arguing the cemetery ordinance amounted to a constitutional taking of her private property. The state court rejected her case, ruling it could not hear it until the town actually penalized Knick.

Federal Courts Punted

Instead of waiting to be fined and then starting the state legal process over again, Knick sued in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania to enforce her constitutionally protected property rights.

The district court ruled it could not hear Knick’s claim because of a 34-year-old Supreme Court decision in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, which held property rights claims against local governments must be adjudicated in state courts before plaintiffs could file a claim in federal court. On appeal, the Third Circuit Court also rejected the case.

Supreme Court Overturns Precedent

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted Knick’s appeal and held two hearings on the case.

Writing for the majority in a five to four decision overturning the Williamson precedent, Chief Justice John Roberts said it would be an injustice for Knick and plaintiffs like her to be unable to receive a federal hearing on their property rights claims.

“[A person] cannot go to federal court without going to state court first; but if he goes to state court and loses, his claim will be barred in federal court,” Roberts wrote.

“We now conclude that the state-litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden” on the property owner, Roberts wrote. “Contrary to Williamson County, a property owner has a claim for a violation of the Takings Clause as soon as a government takes his property for public use without paying for it.”

Williamson County was not just wrong,” Roberts wrote. “Its reasoning was exceptionally ill founded and conflicted with much of our takings jurisprudence.”

‘Full-Fledged Constitutional Status’

The Court’s decision restores property ownership as a fundamental right protected by the Constitution, Roberts writes.

“Fidelity to the Takings Clause and our cases construing it requires overruling Williamson County and restoring takings claims to the full-fledged constitutional status the Framers envisioned when they included the Clause among the other protections in the Bill of Rights. … The state-litigation requirement relegates the Takings Clause ‘to the status of a poor relation’ among the provisions of the Bill of Rights,” Roberts wrote.

Leveling the Playing Field

Property owners with takings claims often prefer to take their cases to federal court because they may view them as more objective than state courts, which might be influenced by local politics, says J. David Breemer, a senior attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented Knick in her federal takings claims. During the second round of oral arguments in January, Associate Justice Samuel Alito accused the local government of seeking “home-court advantage” in state court, Breemer says.

“This decision is a very long time coming for Rose and other property owners who have had federal courtroom doors slammed shut in their faces whenever they seek compensation for a governmental taking of their private property,” Breemer said.

The Supreme Court remanded Knick’s case back to the lower federal court for a decision on the merits of her takings claim.

Holding State Courts Accountable

The Knick decision should help ensure states play fair with takings claims, says Devin Watkins, an attorney with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

 “State court judges are often friendly with the local elected officials, who often are the ones who put them on the bench,” said Watkins. “As such, there is an incentive for judges to give the local officials a break and maybe be less aggressive concerning what is a taking or how much ‘just compensation’ is.

“Federal judges often have never even met the local elected officials and will rule solely based on the law as they see it,” Watkins said. “This creates a competition between federal judges and state judges … encourage[ing] state judges to be fairer.”

In her dissenting minority opinion, Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “Under cover of overruling ‘only’ a single decision, today’s opinion smashes a hundred-plus years of legal rulings to smithereens.”

The Court’s liberal wing is fighting to protect decisions established by decades of previous pro-government Court majorities, says Watkins.

“The left wing of the Court sees a lot of their most valued precedents at risk with a new conservative majority,” said Watkins. “These justices also see the Takings Clause as an obstacle to their goals of using government to control what they see as ‘bad’ uses of property,’ notably in environmental takings or ‘rich guy versus poor guy’ cases such as beach access.”

Duggan Flanakin ([email protected]) writes from Austin, Texas.