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.”
Holding: A government violates the takings clause when it takes property without compensation, and a property owner may bring a Fifth Amendment claim under 42 U. S. C. §1983 at that time; the state-litigation requirement of Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, is overruled.
Judgment: Vacated and remanded, 5-4, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts on June 21, 2019. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion. Justice Kagan filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined.
- Opinion analysis: Court overrules takings precedent, allowing more suits in federal court (Miriam Seifter)
- A “view” from the courtroom: “We break no new legal ground” (Mark Walsh)
- Reargument analysis: Justices seek a “middle position” in takings litigation case (Miriam Seifter)
- Reargument preview: A new theory of when local-government takings occur (Miriam Seifter)
- OT2018 #7: “Now Who’s the Legal Realist?” (First Mondays)
- Busy afternoon at the Supreme Court: Six grants and one reargument order, but no stay in census dispute (Amy Howe)
- OT2018 #2: “Alea Iacta Est” (First Mondays)
- Argument analysis: Weighing federal court access for local takings plaintiffs (Miriam Seifter)
- Argument preview: Overruling Williamson County in the “Knick” of time? (Miriam Seifter)
- Justices grant review in two new cases (Amy Howe)
|Date||Proceedings and Orders (key to color coding)|
|Sep 07 2017||Application (17A272) to extend the time to file a petition for a writ of certiorari from October 4, 2017 to November 1, 2017, submitted to Justice Alito.|
|Sep 11 2017||Application (17A272) granted by Justice Alito extending the time to file until November 1, 2017.|
|Oct 31 2017||Petition for a writ of certiorari filed. (Response due December 4, 2017)|
|Nov 13 2017||Blanket Consent filed by Petitioner, Rose Mary Knick.|
|Nov 29 2017||Motion to extend the time to file a response from December 4, 2017 to January 3, 2018, submitted to The Clerk.|
|Nov 29 2017||Blanket Consent filed by Respondent, Township of Scott, PA.|
|Dec 04 2017||Motion to extend the time to file a response is granted and the time is extended to and including January 3, 2018|
|Dec 04 2017||Brief amici curiae of Cato Institute, et al. filed.|
|Dec 04 2017||Brief amicus curiae of Institute for Justice filed.|
|Dec 04 2017||Brief amicus curiae of National Association of Home Builders filed.|
|Jan 03 2018||Brief of respondent Township of Scott, Pennsylvania in opposition filed.|
|Jan 12 2018||Reply of petitioner Rose Mary Knick filed. (Distributed)|
|Jan 17 2018||DISTRIBUTED for Conference of 2/16/2018.|
|Feb 20 2018||DISTRIBUTED for Conference of 2/23/2018.|
|Feb 26 2018||DISTRIBUTED for Conference of 3/2/2018.|
|Mar 05 2018||Petition GRANTED limited to Question 1 presented by the petition.|
|Mar 08 2018||Joint Motion for an extension of time filed.|
|Mar 09 2018||Joint Motion to extend the time to file the opening briefs on the merits granted. The time to file the joint appendix and petitioner’s brief on the merits is extended to and including May 21, 2018. The time to file respondents’ brief on the merits is extended to and including July 20, 2018.|
|Apr 30 2018||Blanket Consent filed by Petitioner, Rose Mary Knick|
|May 02 2018||Blanket Consent filed by Respondent, Township of Scott, Pennsylvania|
|May 11 2018||Brief amicus curiae of Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association filed.|
|May 17 2018||Joint motion for a further extension of time filed.|
|May 21 2018||Joint motion for a further extension of time granted. The time to file the joint appendix and petitioner’s brief on the merits is further extended to and including May 29, 2018. The time to file respondents’ brief on the merits is further extended to and including July 30, 2018.|
|May 29 2018||Brief of petitioner Rose Mary Knick filed.|
|May 29 2018||Joint appendix filed (to be reprinted).|
|May 29 2018||Joint appendix filed (6/4/18 reprint received). (Statement of costs filed.)|
|May 31 2018||Brief amicus curiae of American Planning Association in support of neither party filed.|
|Jun 01 2018||Brief amici curiae of Washington Legal Foundation, et al filed.|
|Jun 01 2018||Brief amici curiae of American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and CATL Fund filed.|
|Jun 04 2018||Brief amicus curiae of Ohio Farm Bureau Federation filed.|
|Jun 04 2018||Brief amicus curiae of Institute for Justice filed.|
|Jun 04 2018||Brief amicus curiae of Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence filed.|
|Jun 04 2018||Brief amicus curiae of Justice and Freedom Fund filed.|
|Jun 05 2018||Brief amicus curiae of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed.|
|Jun 05 2018||Brief amici curiae of The States of Texas and Oklahoma filed.|
|Jun 05 2018||Brief amicus curiae of United States filed.|
|Jun 05 2018||Brief amici curiae of Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights Legal Fund and Inversecondemnation.com filed.|
|Jun 05 2018||Brief amici curiae of Cato Institute, et al. filed.|
|Jun 05 2018||Brief amicus curiae of New England Legal Foundation filed.|
|Jun 05 2018||Brief amici curiae of San Remo Hotel, L.P., et al. filed.|
|Jun 05 2018||Brief amici curiae of AARP and AARP Foundation filed.|
|Jun 05 2018||Brief amici curiae of Congressmen King, et al. filed.|
|Jun 05 2018||Brief amicus curiae of National Association of Home Builders filed.|
|Jul 09 2018||SET FOR ARGUMENT On Wednesday, October 3, 2018|
|Jul 30 2018||Brief of respondent Township of Scott, Pennsylvania filed.|
|Jul 31 2018||Motion of the Solicitor General for leave to participate in oral argument as amicus curiae and for divided argument filed.|
|Aug 02 2018||Brief amicus curiae of Cemetery Law Scholars filed. (Distributed)|
|Aug 03 2018||CIRCULATED|
|Aug 06 2018||Brief amici curiae of Takings and Federal Courts Scholars filed. (Distributed)|
|Aug 06 2018||Brief amici curiae of States of California, et al. filed. (Distributed)|
|Aug 06 2018||Brief amici curiae of National Governors Association, et al. filed. (Distributed)|
|Aug 07 2018||Record requested from the U.S.C.A. 3rd Circuit.|
|Aug 20 2018||Record received from both the U.S.C.A. 3rd Circuit, and from the U.S.D.C. Middle District of Pennsylvania (Scranton) is electronic.|
|Aug 24 2018||Reply of petitioner Rose Mary Knick filed. (Distributed)|
|Sep 24 2018||Motion of the Solicitor General for leave to participate in oral argument as amicus curiae and for divided argument GRANTED.|
|Oct 03 2018||Argued. For petitioner: J. David Breemer, Sacramento, Cal.; and Noel J. Francisco, Solicitor General, Department of Justice, Washington, D. C. (for United States, as amicus curiae.) For respondents: Teresa Ficken Sachs, Philadelphia, Pa.|
|Nov 02 2018||This case is restored to the calendar for reargument. The parties and the Solicitor General are directed to file letter briefs, not to exceed 10 pages, addressing petitioner’s alternative argument for vacatur, discussed at pages 12-15 and 40-42 of the transcript of oral argument and in footnote 14 of petitioner’s brief on the merits. The briefs are to be filed simultaneously with the Clerk and served upon opposing counsel on or before 2 p.m., Friday, November 30, 2018. Reply briefs, not to exceed 4 pages, are to be filed simultaneously with the Clerk and served upon opposing counsel on or before 2 p.m., Friday, December 21, 2018.|
|Nov 28 2018||SET FOR REARGUMENT ON Wednesday, January 16, 2019|
|Nov 30 2018||CIRCULATED|
|Nov 30 2018||Supplemental letter brief of petitioner Rose Mary Knick filed. (Distributed)|
|Nov 30 2018||Supplemental letter brief of respondents Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, et al. filed. (Distributed)|
|Nov 30 2018||Supplemental letter brief of United States as amicus curiae filed. (Distributed)|
|Dec 06 2018||Supplemental reply letter brief of petitioner Rose Mary Knick filed. (Distributed)|
|Dec 11 2018||Record requested from the U.S.C.A. 3rd Circuit.|
|Dec 21 2018||Supplemental reply letter brief of respondents Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, et al. filed. (Distributed)|
|Dec 21 2018||Supplemental reply letter brief of United States as amicus curiae filed. (Distributed)|
|Jan 11 2019||Letter of petitioner citing new authority not accepted for filing. (Duplicate submission).|
|Jan 11 2019||Letter of petitioner citing supplemental authority filed. (Distributed)|
|Jan 14 2019||Letter of respondents in response to petitioner’s letter citing supplemental authority filed. (Distributed)|
|Jan 16 2019||Argued. For petitioner: J. David Breemer, Sacramento, Cal.; and Noel J. Francisco, Solicitor General, Department of Justice, Washington, D. C. (for United States, as amicus curiae.) For respondents: Teresa Ficken Sachs, Philadelphia, Pa.|
|Jan 18 2019||Letter in reply regarding supplemental authority filed by petitioner. (Distributed)|
|Jun 21 2019||Judgment VACATED and case REMANDED. Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion. Kagan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined.|
|Jul 23 2019||JUDGMENT ISSUED.|