Landmark Supreme Court decision revives property rights

Rose Knick, who lives on her farm in rural Pennsylvania, didn’t initially set out to overturn a decades-old Supreme Court precedent or to help property owners across the country. She just wanted justice when town officials threatened her with crippling fines. But as time passed, she found a greater purpose in her struggle: setting a precedent that would help protect the rights of people across the United States. 

Last week, the Supreme Court vindicated that hope — restoring constitutional property rights to their rightful place. This landmark decision overturns a 34-year precedent that has locked many wronged property owners out of federal court. It will have implications stretching far beyond Knick’s farm in Pennsylvania, giving property owners nationwide a fighting chance to challenge government overreach and abuse. 

Knick’s legal battle began six years ago when officials from the Township of Scott entered her farm without her permission. With scant evidence, the town decided that her 90 acres contained one or more gravesites and declared it a public “cemetery” under a newly passed ordinance. Under the law, Knick, who lives alone, would face fines of up to $600 per day if she failed to open her property to the public seven days a week.

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Knick filed a lawsuit to defend her constitutional rights. The Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause provides that the government can take private property for public use only if it pays for it. But for decades, people such as Knick have encountered trouble when they attempt to enforce this constitutional right against the local government in federal court. 

In 1985, in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, the Supreme Court held that a property owner could defend this right only after first suing for “just compensation” for the taken property in state court. But in 2005, the Supreme Court held that Williamson County’s assumption was incorrect; once a property owner lost in state court he would be barred from getting a second chance to sue over the same issue in federal court. 

Nevertheless, the court did not overturn Williamson County. As a result, property rights were relegated to second-class status, and property owners often faced unfair procedural hurdles even to get their claims heard in state court. For example, in some cases the government would file to have a case moved from state court to federal court, only to claim then that the federal court could not hear the claim because of Williamson County.

When Knick filed her claim in federal court, the district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals told her she would have to start over in state court. Perhaps worst of all, according to Williamson County’s reasoning, a federal court could not recognize that Knick’s constitutional property rights were “violated” until after she sued and lost in state court. But at that point, she could not go back to federal court. 

Fortunately, the Supreme Court last year granted review of Knick’s case. After two oral arguments this term, the court finally recognized that Williamson County was “exceptionally ill-founded” and “relegate[d] the Takings Clause ‘to the status of a poor relation’ among the provisions of the Bill of Rights.”

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The court restored that status by holding that government violates the Constitution when it takes private property without paying for it. As Chief Justice John Roberts explained in his majority opinion, “A bank robber might give the loot back, but he still robbed the bank.” 

In other words, a property owner can go straight to federal court when a town or county takes property without first paying for it. This holding not only opens up the federal courts, it also recognizes that wrong inflicted on individuals when the government turns private property into public property without first paying for it.  

Knick has persevered through years of burdensome litigation, but her fight is not over. She will have to go back to the lower courts, where she will finally get the chance to prove her case. But thanks to her endurance, Williamson County has been buried and property rights for everyone have been strengthened. 

Christina Martin is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, which provided Rose Knick with free legal representation before the Supreme Court. Follow her on Twitter @CMM123.