With a 5-4 decision in Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a property owner can bring a Fifth Amendment challenge to government taking in federal court without first having to challenge it in state court. In a victory for property owners, the court overturned a 1985 takings precedent that had forced many property owners into a paradox that prevented them from the ability to seek relief in federal court. Knick was a split 4-4 vote last year before Justice Kavanaugh was seated.
If the primary purpose of the federal government is to defend the civil rights of citizens against those who would constrict them, this ruling is a triumph for liberty and property rights. Although this ruling does not declare all government seizure of private property to be unlawful, it takes a step in the right direction by affirming that government seizure of property without just compensation is a violation of civil rights, and thus immediately appealable to federal court.
Knick deals with compensation for private property owners when the use of that property is taken from them by state or local governments, under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The immediate question asked whether private landowners must exhaust all state-offered venues for mediation before seeking action in the federal courts.
Rose Mary Knick purchased 90 acres of farmland in Scott Township, located in Lackawanna County Penn., in 1970. Around 2008, another resident of the township discovered documentation that indicated a relative might have been buried in an unknown and unmarked cemetery somewhere on Knick’s farm. Knick, the resident, and the township disagreed about whether the resident should have access to Knick’s private property to search for this cemetery. Knick denied having seen any evidence of a cemetery, her land title did not include any mention of a cemetery, and no such cemetery had been registered with the state.
The township passed an ordinance in 2012 that required any cemetery operating within the township to include right-of-way access from the nearest public road, and to allow public access during daylight hours. After passage of the ordinance, a township official entered Knick’s property without permission and discovered a set of stones deemed to be a cemetery, and determined Knick to be in violation of the ordinance. The township filed its first formal complaint in April 2013. Knick did not comply, leading to a second complaint in October 2014.
Knick sought relief from the Pennsylvania court of common pleas, believing her land was being taken without compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The court refused to accept the case, because the township had yet to file a civil enforcement action against her. Knick subsequently appealed to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, citing facial challenges that the township’s new ordinance inherently violated her Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights in addition to her takings claims. The district court dismissed the case, citing the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City. This ruling had forbidden federal courts from hearing eminent domain cases until the plaintiff had exhausted state court options. Knick challenged again to the Third Circuit Appeals Court.
Eventually, the case reached the Supreme Court, and on June 21 part of the 1985 Williamson County ruling was reversed. The court ruled that the government violates the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment when it takes property without compensation, and that a property owner may bring a Fifth Amendment claim in federal court under U.S. Code Title 42 § 1983.
Justices John Roberts wrote the opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh, while Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
The Libertarian Party’s Statement of Principles, which asserts that governments must not violate the right to property, states, “we oppose all government interference with private property, such as confiscation, nationalization, and eminent domain.”
Libertarians often paraphrase the Constitution to say, “States don’t have rights. States have powers and only people have rights.” In this ruling, the court affirmed that the Constitution protects individual property rights against the power of a state government, and nobody has to go to that state’s courts to defend their rights. This verdict should be seen as a victory for liberty — perhaps the most pro-liberty Supreme ruling of the year so far.