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Buried-bodies brewhaha threatens access-for-all to federal courts

Two U.S. Supreme Court justices have suggested courthouse doors could be closed to people bringing complaints of constitutional violations.

The comments from Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor in a dispute the court was hearing over a property taking in Scott Township, Pennsylvania.

Town officials adopted an ordinance used to require a woman, Rose Mary Knick, effectively to turn her 90 acres of private land into public property. But officials refused her any compensation.

A federal court refused to hear her federal claim, citing a 1983 decision that held property owners must take their claims to state courts first.

But the state courts also refused to take Knick’s case.

The dispute arose when township officials abruptly adopted an ordinance that requires landowners to open their property to the public if there are claims that a historical gravesite exists on the land, as WND reported.

Knick’s property has been in her family for half a century, and someone claimed there was on old gravesite on the land, despite lack of evidence.

According to Miriam Seifter at SCOTUSblog, Breyer during oral arguments wasn’t worried about people with federal claims getting access to the courts.

“[T]here’s no reason in history that federal courts have to be open to every federal claim. I mean, sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re not,” Breyer stated.

The blogger said Sotomayor “added that the federal courthouse doors are closed to other classes of litigants, including those with tax-related claims and those objecting to unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The issue is the 1983 precedent, Seifter explained: “As my argument preview described, that ruling has generated controversy. Its phrasing suggests that takings plaintiffs simply must start in state court. But because of the rules of preclusion, which prevent relitigation in federal court of issues that have been litigated in state court, Williamson County’s holding means that many takings plaintiffs have no federal forum at all (other than possible review by the Supreme Court itself). At argument on Wednesday, the court’s eight justices considered whether this restriction is an unfair catch-22 warranting reversal of Williamson County or an even-handed application of the rules of federal court jurisdiction.”

Attorney David Breemer of the Pacific Legal Foundation argued to the justices that the taking of property occurs when the government takes it.

That is, when the government “invades” the property without going through condemnation procedures.

In essence, he said, the township demanded public access without compensation.

U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco sided with the township.

But he suggested a resolution could be for federal courts to hear such claims.

Breyer argued that the precedent, which would deprive Knick of any compensation for making her land public, should be left alone.

“Scott Township’s graveyard law forces property owners to allow warrantless searches by government and unbridled trespassing by the public,” Pacific Legal Foundation Breemer said of the dispute earlier.

Knick said: “It was unbelievable that the town would trample all over my rights this way, making it open season for trespassing on my land. I am very hopeful that the Supreme Court will take a stand for the Constitution, and for everybody’s property rights, by striking down this outrageous law.”

Isolated grave sites are not uncommon in parts of the country where there is no ban on burials on private ground. And, indeed, sometimes burials date back to before rules and regulations were in place. So the plains of Pennsylvania contain small burial plots for families.

There are none evident on Knick’s property.