June 21, 2019

Supreme Court Decides Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania

On June 21, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, No. 17-647, overruling Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), and holding that a government violates the Takings Clause the moment it takes property without compensation, and a property owner may assert a Fifth Amendment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 at that time, without pursuing a state-law remedy first.

Rose Mary Knick owns a 90-acre farmstead in Scott Township, Pennsylvania. Her property includes a small graveyard where ancestors of Knick’s neighbors are buried (such family cemeteries are not uncommon in Pennsylvania). Scott Township passed an ordinance that required all cemeteries to be open and accessible to the public during daylight hours and authorized “code enforcement” officers to “enter upon any property” to determine the existence and location of any cemetery. A Scott Township code enforcement officer learned of the burial ground on Knick’s property and informed her that she was violating the ordinance by failing to keep the cemetery open to the public during the day. Knick sued in state court for declaratory and injunctive relief on the ground that the ordinance constituted a taking of her property, but she did not pursue an inverse-condemnation action to recover compensation. The Township then withdrew the violation notice and agreed to stay enforcement of the ordinance during the state-court lawsuit. But the state court held that it could not rule on Knick’s request without an ongoing enforcement action.

Knick then filed a § 1983 action in federal court, alleging that the ordinance violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The district court dismissed her claim under Williamson County because she hadn’t first pursued an inverse-condemnation action in state court. The Third Circuit affirmed, despite noting that the ordinance was “extraordinary and constitutionally suspect.”

The Supreme Court reversed. It emphasized that the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment states that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Court held that this means that a government violates the Takings Clause immediately upon taking property without paying for it, despite the fact that state law provides a mechanism for the property owner to recover compensation later on. Thus, a property owner has a claim for violation of the Takings Clause under § 1983 at the moment the government takes property without paying for it. The property owner does not first have to pursue a lawsuit in state court to recover compensation.

Williamson County held otherwise; it concluded that a taking does not give rise to a federal constitutional right to compensation at the moment of the taking, but instead gives a property owner a right to a state-law procedure that will eventually result in just compensation. The Court overruled Williamson County on this score, explaining that its holding was “exceptionally ill-founded and conflicted with much of [the Court’s] takings jurisprudence.” The Court also noted that Williamson County produced a problem after the Court’s subsequent decision that a state court’s resolution of a takings claim under state law has preclusive effect in any subsequent federal suit under the full faith and credit statute. These two cases created a “Catch 22” for a takings plaintiff: She cannot go to federal court without going to state court first; but if she goes to state court and loses, her claim will be barred in federal court. The Court held that principles of stare decisis did not require continuing adherence to Williamson County because the decision “was not just wrong [but] was exceptionally ill founded and conflicted with much of [the Court’s] takings jurisprudence.” The decision has been criticized by Justices and commentators over the years. And it proved to be unworkable in practice (the “Catch 22” mentioned above).

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined. Justice Kagan filed a dissenting opinion.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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