Supreme Court Paves Route to Sue Over Cemetery Law

In this Sept. 21, 2018 file photo, Pennsylvania resident Rose Mary Knick stands next to a private property sign on her farmland in Lackawanna County’s Scott Township. The Supreme Court sided with Knick in a case that gives citizens another avenue to pursue claims when they believe states and local governments have harmed their property rights. (AP Photo/Jessica Gresko)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Town officials who traipsed on a Pennsylvania woman’s land, hunting for unmarked graves, could be on the hook for federal damages, the Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Rose Mary Knick filed the suit after Scott Township officials entered her property without a warrant under the suspicion that certain stones on her land were grave markers. Town law permits officials to enter any grounds for the purpose of identifying a cemetery, and requires that private properties containing cemeteries be open during the day, but Knick said the intrusion amounted to an unconstitutional taking in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Though the Third Circuit found the law “extraordinary and constitutionally suspect,” it threw out Knick’s suit for failure to exhaust state-level inverse-condemnation proceedings.

The Supreme Court vacated that judgment this morning in a 5-4 decision. Now, property owners have the right to bring takings suits directly to federal court.

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinion, writing that the court has a history of recognizing that property owners may bring taking suits as soon as their property has been taken, regardless of other remedies.

The court overturned part of its decision in the 1985 case Williamson County v. Hamilton Bank, which forced property owners to exhaust all state-level options first.

Robert said the town interpreted too broadly statements from prior cases that the takings clause “‘does not provide or require that compensation shall be actually paid in advance of the occupancy of the land to be taken.”

“Those statements concerned request for injunctive relief and, and the availability of subsequent compensation meant that such an equitable remedy was not available,” he wrote. “Simply because the property owner was not entitled to injunctive relief at the time of taking does not mean there was no violation of the takings clause at that time.”

Roberts said there were several factors that attributed to overruling the state-litigation requirement of Williamson County, which he called a “poorly reasoned” decision.

Williamson County envisioned that takings plaintiffs would ripen their federal claims in state court and then, if necessary, bring a federal suit,” the ruling states. “But, as we held in San Remo [Hotel v. San Francisco], the state court’s resolution of the plaintiff ’s inverse condemnation claim has preclusive effect in any subsequent federal suit.”

The chief justice added, “Our holding that uncompensated takings violate the Fifth Amendment will not expose governments to new liability; it will simply allow into federal court takings claims that otherwise would have been brought as inverse condemnation suits in state court.”

Roberts was joined in the majority by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas, who filed a concurring opinion.

Thomas said the majority correctly interpreted the takings clause by holding that “violation of this clause occurs as soon as the government takes property without paying for it.”

In a dissenting opinion from the court’s liberal wing, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that overturning Williamson County reverses “an understanding of the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause stretching back to the late 1800s.”

“The majority today holds, in conflict with precedent after precedent, that a government violates the Constitution whenever it takes property without advance compensation—no matter how good its commitment to pay,” she wrote. “That conclusion has no basis in the takings clause. Its consequence is to channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into federal courts.”

Kagan was joined in her dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Dave Breemer, who represented Knick in the case, said in a statement that the decision was “a long time coming” for her and other property owners.

“The court’s decision sends a message that constitutionally-based property rights deserve federal protection just like other rights,” Breemer said. “Thanks to Rose’s courage and the Supreme Court’s careful examination of the issue, property owners now have access to the federal courts when they seek to protect their federal property rights from overreaching government.”

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