The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case concerning the forced provision of public access to private property in rural eastern Pennsylvania that could have a profound impact on property rights across the nation.
Rose Mary Knick’s family have owned the 90-acre stone fence enclosed farm in Scott Township since 1970. Now residing there alone, Knick grazes cattle, horses, and other livestock on the farm.
New Local Cemetery Ordinance
In its long history, Pennsylvania has never prohibited or regulated small, private gravesites on private land. However, in 2012, Scott Township decided to “regulate” private cemeteries for the first time, enacting an ordinance allowing Township officials to enter any private land, without a warrant, consent, or any compensation, to look for the existence of burial grounds.
The law also allows the general public to enter any parcel deemed to contain a burial ground, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, for the purpose of visiting the alleged cemetery area. Any property owner not allowing access to what the Township deems a private burial ground faces a fine of up to $600.00 per day.
A day after enacting the law, unannounced, Township officials entered Knick’s farm, and claimed to have found a few “stones” in an isolated area which they believed to be old grave headstones. Shortly thereafter, the Township issued Knick a “Notice of Violation” saying she was violating the Township’s new cemetery ordinance because she had not opened her land containing the alleged gravesite to the public. The notice ordered Knick to open the relevant portion of her farm up for universal public viewing, and threatened to fine her if she did not comply.
State Lawsuit Filed
Knick fought back, filing a state lawsuit against the Town. Knick’s lawsuit asserts the Township’s cemetery access law constitutes an unconstitutional taking of her property without compensation.
The state court declined to hear Knick’s case saying it wasn’t ripe for consideration until the Township actually filed its own suit against her. Knick then sought relief in federal district court. The district court said it would not hear the case, citing a 33-year-old Supreme Court precedent known as Williamson County which holds property owners must first exhaust all legal options at the state level before going to federal court.
Represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), Knick appealed this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. PLF argued, as present rulings stand Knick is effectively denied both her property rights and her day in court to determine whether her fundamental property rights, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, had been taken without compensation. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Knick’s case on March 5.
‘Second Class’ Rights
PLF says it is important the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case so private property owners aren’t, under threat of mounting penalties, forced to bear the costs providing a public service without just compensation. PLF argues under the Williamson County precedent and the state court’s ruling, Knick’s property rights are treated as “second class,” being unable to defend her rights in state or federal court as she would be allowed to do if other constitutionally guaranteed rights, like her right to speak freely or to vote, were being denied.
“Federal courts must be open for the protection of all constitutional rights, especially when government gives a pass to the general public to enter your property at any time, seven days a week, to view a couple of stones—in our case, to literally chase ghosts,” J. David Breemer, PLF Senior Attorney, said in a press release lauding the Supreme Court’s decision to accept the case. “We’re thrilled the Supreme Court sees the value our case brings to defending fundamental property rights.”
“A ruling in favor of our client will allow [Knick]—and landowners nationwide—to seek the swiftest relief from unconstitutional government intrusion,” said Breemer.
Knick says as the law stands her property rights are being violated when there is no actual record of any burial site ever on her land, according to PLF’s press release.
“The records for my property go back hundreds of years, and there’s absolutely no evidence of a burial site,” said Knick. “Regardless, if I don’t let people onto my property whenever they want to see some rocks, I’m punished.
“I hope the Supreme Court puts an end to this nonsense—not just for me, but for all Americans,” Knick said.
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.