A little family cemetery in rural Pennsylvania triggered a legal earthquake that might be felt in land disputes and coastal-access battles up and down California.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that property owners can go straight to federal court to fight claims that local or state government prevented them from using their land as they see fit. The decision overturned a long-held precedent that trapped property owners in what Chief Justice John Roberts described as a Catch-22.

Under existing law property owners couldn’t go to federal court until all legal options on the state level had been exhausted. Now those owners can take their claims straight to the federal court system, which is considered friendly than the state courts for such claims.

The vote was tight — 5-4 — with the conservative faction of the court on the winning side and the liberal justices filing dissenting opinions.

In essence, under existing law property owners couldn’t go to federal court until all legal options on the state level had been exhausted. Now those owners can take their claims straight to the federal court system, which is considered friendly than the state courts for such claims.

Under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, property owners must receive “just compensation” when a government takes land for public use. Based on a 1985 decision (Williamson County Planning Commission vs. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City), owners couldn’t appeal to the feds until all remedies were exhausted or a federal claim would be “premature.”

A Little Cemetery Set it All in Motion

Writing for the majority, Roberts said the property owner “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. The federal claim dies aborning.” The Catch-22.

The Pennsylvania case that set this all in motion began in 2012, when Scott Township, about 15 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh, passed an ordinance that allowed officials to enter “any property” to determine if the land is actually a cemetery. A code enforcement officer subsequently visited farmland owned by Rose Mary Knick and determined that several stones on the property were grave markers.

That meant her land, which had been in her family for half a century, was a cemetery under local ordinance. And cemeteries had to be “kept open and accessible to the general public” during the day. If Knick didn’t provide public acccess, she faced daily fines up to $600.

Knick sued the township, saying it was performing an “uncompensated taking” that violated her Fifth Amendment rights. The township withdrew its notice on the property. A federal district court and appellate sided with the township, saying Knick hadn’t proved harm on the state court level.

Dissenting Justices Say it’s a Bad Predecent

The Supreme Court, in its Friday ruling, disagreed. And the majority was more than ready to bury the precedent set in ’85. “Williamson County was not just wrong,” Roberts wrote. “Its reasoning was exceptionally ill-founded and conflicted with much of our takings jurisprudence.”

The court’s liberal justices, all of whom voted against Knick, railed about the overturning of precedent. Justice Elena Kagan, in a dissenting opinion, said the ruling “rejects far more than a single decision in 1985,” which she said “was rooted in an understanding of the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause stretching back to the 1980s.”

The consequence of the court’s ruling will be “to channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into federal courts,” Kagan wrote.

Pacific Legal Foundation, which brought Knick’s case to the nation’s highest court, said the decision was “a long time coming.”

“Thanks to Rose’s courage and the Supreme Court’s careful examination of the issue,” Pacific Legal Foundation said in a statement, “property owners now have access to the federal courts when they seek to protect their federal property rights from over-reaching government.”

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