The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a landmark property rights decision on June 21, 2019, ruling that the federal courts are open to decide landowners’ claims for a Fifth Amendment “taking” of property by local regulatory agencies.
In Knick v. Township of Scott, the nation’s highest court reversed a 1985 precedent that had forced property owners to first bring takings lawsuits in state courts, a precedent which had ultimately blocked claims from reaching a federal court.
This legal fight centers on an alleged burial ground on Rose Knick’s land in Western Pennsylvania’s Scott Township. A local ordinance requires landowners to allow public access to old cemeteries and burial sites. Knick challenged the policy as a violation of her property rights, but encountered what many critics call a catch-22 in takings litigation.
Under the Supreme Court precedent known as Williamson County, landowners must bring claims against local governments in state court before they can proceed to federal court, even though legal rules generally prevent federal courts from re-reviewing already litigated cases.
The 5-4 ruling in Knick holds that suits arising under the Takings Clause can be brought as an initial matter in U.S. trial courts before being appealed in U.S. circuit courts—just like any other alleged grievance to vindicate protections in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Such matters are no longer relegated to state judges for resolution. The ruling clarifies that federal courts are now proper venues to test the constitutionality of aggressive land-use decisions by local regulators, as they can decide whether landowners are owed “just compensation” for a property taking.
Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion corrected the litigation dilemma for property owners trapped between state and federal judiciaries. “The 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,” Roberts wrote. “The federal claim dies aborning.”
Roberts added, “Takings claims against local governments should be handled the same as other claims under the Bill of Rights. We now conclude that the state litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden on takings plaintiffs, conflicts with the rest of our takings jurisprudence, and must be overruled.”
Roberts reasoned that landowners have a claim under the Fifth Amendment—which bars the government from taking property without compensation—as soon as the taking occurs, and, therefore, have access to federal court immediately.
Experts expect the ruling to have ramifications for similar challenges to local governments’ environmental regulations or land-use plans—helping landowners get to federal court swiftly.
“This decision is a very long time coming for Rose and other property owners who have had federal courtroom doors slammed shut in their faces whenever they seek compensation for a governmental taking of their private property,” Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Dave Breemer, who represented Knick in the case, said in a statement. “The Court’s decision sends a message that constitutionally-based property rights deserve federal protection just like other rights.”
The attorney representing the property owners before SCOTUS remarked that Knick “reject[s] barriers that unfairly deny property owners their day in court [and] sends a message that property rights are just as sacred as all other rights.”
This landmark Supreme Court decision is a decisive win for Knick and property owners everywhere who have defended property rights from government overreach. With this decision, some of those rights have been restored.
Russell W. Riggs is a senior policy representative for the Environment and Administrative Regulatory Reform, National Association of REALTORS®. This column is brought to you by the NAR Real Estate Services group. For more information, please visit www.nar.realtor.