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Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania

Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania: Supreme Court Overturns Precedent Now Allowing Property Rights Cases in Federal Court

In a 1985 decision by the Supreme Court in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, the Supreme Court required property owners to take their complaints to the state courts prior to bringing them to federal courts. However, in a recent decision by the Supreme Court in Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania the Court overturned that precedent and ruled that the 1985 ruling placed an “unjustifiable burden” on property owners, preventing many of them from ever reaching federal court. The Court reasoned that an “unanticipated consequence” of the 1985 ruling was that a “plaintiff who complied with Williamson County and brought a compensation claim in state court would—on proceeding to federal court after the unsuccessful state claim—have the federal claim barred because the full faith and credit statute required the federal court to give preclusive effect to the state court’s decision.” Justice Roberts writing for the majority stated that “[t]he takings plaintiff thus finds himself in a Catch-22: He 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.”

In this specific case a Pennsylvania woman owned property which included a small family cemetery. The local township passed an ordinance requiring all cemeteries to be open to the public during daylight hours. She sued in federal court stating that the ordinance violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The lower courts dismissed her suit stating that it must be brought in state court under the Williamson County decision. However, the Supreme Court overturned the decision saying that this woman and other property owners seeking compensation for “takings” of their property may go directly to federal court.

Justice Kagan along with 3 other Justices dissented stating that this decision “channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into federal courts.” The dissent argued further that “Adherence to precedent is a foundation stone of the rule of law” and that the Williamson County decision “should stay on the books because of stare decisis.” Justice Kagan wrote “[i]t is hard to overstate the value, in a country like ours, of stability in the law[.]” In a recent decision by the Supreme Court back in May, the Court overturned another precedent, and in the dissent written by Justice Breyer he mentioned the dangers of overturning precedent “because five Members of a later Court decide that an earlier ruling was incorrect.” Justice Breyer said that the ruling “can only cause one to wonder which cases the court will overrule next.” On that note, Justice Kagan wrote “[w]ell, that didn’t take long. Now one may wonder yet again.”

The Result of this case is that now a property owner who has suffered a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights when the government takes his property without just compensation, may bring his claim in federal court. Contrary to the Williamson County Court, “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.” The majority wrote that “[a] later payment of compensation may remedy the constitutional violation that occurred at the time of the taking, but that does not mean the violation never took place,” in fact “[t]he violation is the only reason compensation was owed in the first place. A bank robber might give the loot back, but he still robbed the bank.”

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