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U.S. Supreme Court Restores Property Rights, Prevents Local Governments from Taking Land

By Anthony SanFilippo
July 2019

After 34 years, the U.S. Supreme Court restored constitutional property rights in June, preventing states and local municipalities from taking property as public land and creating an easier path for property owners toward resolution.

The Court’s 5-4 decision in the case of Knick vs. Township of Scott, ruled that property rights protected under the Fifth Amendment are of equal value to the rights protected in the rest of the Constitution.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Fidelity to the Takings Clause and our cases construing it requires overruling Williamson County and restoring takings claims to the full-fledged constitutional status the Framers envisioned when they included the Clause among the other protections in the Bill of Rights.”

“Property owners often had to jump through several hoops just to get their claim heard in federal court. This red tape of procedure was diabolically unfair.”

Rose Knick, who lives alone on a rural farm in Pennsylvania, simply wanted to prevent her Township from assessing steep fines after in 2014 they insisted her property was public land because of the number of gravesites that still exist on her property, declaring the property a public cemetery, per the language in a newly created ordinance.

The Township threatened to fine Knick $600 per day that she didn’t open up her property to the public seven days a week.

She never expected this to make it all the way to the Supreme Court, but she 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.

However, since 1985, property owners – like Knick – have encountered trouble when attempting to claim this constitutional right when fighting the local government in federal court.

It was 34 years ago, in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, that the Supreme Court ruled that a property owner had to first sue for “just compensation” for the taken property in state court before trying to defend their fifth amendment property right.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that Williamson County was incorrect because once a property owner lost in state court they would be barred from getting a second chance to sue over the same issue in federal court.

However, the court did not overturn Williamson County and because of that property rights were relegated to second-class status.

Property owners often had to jump through several hoops just to get their claim heard in federal court. This red tape of procedure was diabolically unfair.

For instance, the local governments often filed to have the case moved from the state court to federal court and once it moved there, the government would argue the federal court couldn’t hear the case because of the Williamson County decision.

In the Knick case, she filed her claim in federal court, but was told by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that she would have to start over in state court because of the reasoning from the Williamson County decision that said a federal court could not recognize the violation of constitutional property rights until after a lawsuit was filed in state court and the property owner lost there. But because she filed in federal court and had to start over, she couldn’t go back to federal court.

It was a vicious circle, but the Supreme Court agreed to review it in 2018. Finally, after hearing oral arguments in 2019, the Court finally admitted that the decision in Williamson County was “exceptionally ill founded.”

Order was restored, and the fifth amendment language was re-instituted, disallowing the government to take private property without paying for it.

“A bank robber may give the loot back, but he still robbed the bank,” Roberts wrote.

This new decision also opens up the federal courts and concurrently recognizes that wrong inflicted on individuals when the government turns private property into public property without first paying for it.


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