In Private Cemetery Case, Supreme Court at Last Buries Rule Denying Property Owners Their Day in Federal Court

This morning, the Supreme Court in Knick v. Township of Scott ruled 5-4 that a government violates the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause when it takes property without compensation, and a property owner may bring a claim to that effect in federal court at any time. This means an overruling of Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City (1985), which required property owners to seek state law remedies in state court  before bringing a federal takings claim.

It’s gratifying that the Court finally overturned the anomalous Williamson County doctrine, which for 34 years denied property owners their day in federal court – forcing them to go through the courts (and often administrative agencies) of the very states they alleged were taking their property. With no other constitutional right do you have to go through state proceedings before you can get your day in federal court – and even then most federal courts would just dismiss the case as already adjudicated (res judicata). No more. With this quirky case involving a private cemetery, the Court has rightly interred the state-litigation requirement.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts methodically explains why property owners’ claims accrue when the alleged taking occurs and then spends several pages evaluating stare decisis (adherence to precedent) concerns – which here fall away because of sustained criticism of Williamson County, which has proven unworkable and fomented little reliance interests. This is one of the rare 5-4 cases this term that has split on “conventional” lines (Republican-appointed justices over Democrat-appointed justices), but I doubt it’ll provoke the kind of political reaction that most other important cases that split this way do. Except perhaps for the stare decisis point, where progressives are increasingly concerned about the new conservative majority sweeping away their preferred doctrines (leading ultimately to Roe v. Wade). Still, Knick will be cited as an example of that supposed trend, rather than a focal point like Janus or Citizens United.

In any event, Knick represents the culmination of many years of challenges to Williamson County, and years of effort to put property rights (and takings claims specifically) on the same procedural footing as other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Congratulations to our friends at Pacific Legal Foundation for bringing this case and many others that led up to it. Cato has been delighted to support these efforts every step of the way. See here for more background and to read Cato’s brief.