US Supreme Court Overturns “Precedent” In Property Rights Case
A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that property owners can go directly to federal court with claims that state and local regulations effectively deprive landowners of the use of their property.
The 5-4 decision overturned decades of precedent that barred property owners from going to federal court until their claims had been denied in state court.
Federal courts are often viewed as friendlier than state courts for such property claims. The decision, with all five of the court’s conservatives in the majority, may have particular effects in cities and coastal areas that have strict regulations for development.
Property owners and developers often have complained that zoning rules and other state and local regulations effectively take their property for public benefit, and that the Constitution requires that they be paid just compensation.
The court’s decision came in the case of Rose Mary Knick, who owns 90 acres of land in Scott Township, Pa. Knick’s home and a grazing area for her horses are on the land, as well as a small cemetery where her neighbors’ ancestors are allegedly buried.
When the town enacted a rule requiring all cemeteries be open to the public during daytime hours, Knick went to state court seeking a judgment that the state had in effect taken her property. When the town withdrew its notice that she was violating the local cemetery law, the state court said Knick could not prove that she was being harmed.
So, she went to the federal courts, which threw out her case based on decades-old Supreme Court decisions that have consistently required property owners to go to the state courts before appealing to the federal courts.
On Friday, however, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the first of those decisions, a 1985 ruling that required property owners to take their complaints to the state courts first. Instead, the court majority said Knick and other property owners seeking compensation for limits on their property rights may go directly to federal court.
“We now conclude that the state litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden” on a property owner’s claim that his or her land has been effectively taken for public benefit without the government paying just compensation, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.
In essence, Roberts said, property owners are entitled to the same rights in federal court that other citizens have if they can prove that their constitutional rights have been violated.
Justice Elena Kagan, joined by the court’s three other liberal justices, dissented in furious tones. Friday’s decision, she said, “rejects far more than a single decision in 1985.” That decision, Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, “was rooted in an understanding of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause stretching back to the late 1800s, Kagan wrote.
On that view, a government could take property so long as it provided a reliable mechanism to pay just compensation, even if the payment came after the fact,” Kagan said, adding, “No longer.”
In conflict with “precedent after precedent,” she said, the majority holds that a government violates the Constitution whenever it takes property without advance compensation, no matter how good its commitment to pay. The consequence, she added, is “to channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into federal courts.”
The “entire idea” of abiding by precedent, she said, is that “judges do not get to reverse a decision just because they never liked it in the first instance.” Rather, she said, they need a reason other than that the precedent was wrongly decided.
“It is hard to overstate the value, in a country like ours, of stability in law,” said Kagan, pointing so a similar observation by one of her colleagues just weeks ago.
On May 13, Justice Stephen Breyer chastised his conservative colleagues for reversing a precedent on a question that rarely arises: “Today’s decision can only cause one to wonder which cases the Court will overrule next.”
“Well that didn’t take long,” opined a caustic Kagan. “Now one may wonder yet again.”
Clarence Thomas Benchslaps the Federal Government in a Property Rights Case
“Our role is to enforce the Takings Clause as written.”
Property rights advocates scored a significant victory today when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1985 precedent which had forced property owners whose land is taken by the government to seek just compensation in state court before they are permitted to file a constitutional case in federal court.
According to the 5–4 majority opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts in Knick v. Township of Scott, “the state-litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden on takings plaintiffs, conflicts with the rest of our takings jurisprudence, and must be overruled.
A property owner has an actionable Fifth Amendment takings claim when the government takes his property without paying for it.”
The case centered on a local Pennsylvania ordinance requiring that all cemeteries “be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.”
In 2013, Scott Township sought to enforce this ordinance against Rose Mary Knick, whose property, as the Court described it, “includes a small graveyard where the ancestors of Knick’s neighbors are allegedly buried.
Such family cemeteries are fairly common in Pennsylvania, where ‘backyard burials’ have long been permitted.”
Knick objected to this government taking of her property. But under the Supreme Court’s 1985 precedent in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, she was barred from going straight to federal court.
“If a State provides an adequate procedure for seeking just compensation,” Williamson County said, “the property owner cannot claim a violation of the Just Compensation Clause until it has used the [state] procedure and been denied just compensation.”
In its ruling today on behalf of Knick, the Supreme Court struck down Williamson County.
In addition to being a victory for property owners, Knick v. Township of Scott is also notable for featuring some sharp words from Justice Clarence Thomas directed at the federal government.
As Thomas noted in a concurring opinion, the U.S. solicitor general filed an amicus brief in the case which argued that “the failure to provide contemporaneous compensation for a taking does not violate the Fifth Amendment if the government has provided an adequate mechanism for obtaining just compensation.”
What’s wrong with that? Here is a sample of Thomas’ rather pointed rebuke to the federal government:
The United States…urges us not to enforce the Takings Clause as written.
It worries that requiring payment to accompany a taking would allow courts to enjoin or invalidate broad regulatory programs “merely” because the program takes property without paying for it.
According to the United States, “there is a ‘nearly infinite variety of ways in which government actions or regulations can affect property interests,’ and it ought to be good enough that the government “implicitly promises to pay compensation for any taking” if a property owner successfully sues the government in court.
Government officials, the United States contends, should be able to implement regulatory programs “without fear” of injunction or invalidation under the Takings Clause, “even when” the program is so far reaching that the officials “cannot determine whether a taking will occur.” [Citations omitted.]
In short, Thomas exhibited exactly zero patience towards what he called the federal government’s “sue me” stance. If Knick v. Township of Scott “makes some regulatory programs ‘unworkable in practice,'” Thomas declared, “so be it—our role is to enforce the Takings Clause as written.”