The U.S. Supreme Court, in a sharply divided 5-4 decision that brought a bitter dissent from progressives justices, opened federal courts to lawsuits by individuals seeking compensation when a government takes their private property for public use.
The ruling came in a complaint by a woman challenging a demand by officials in Scott Township, Pennsylvania, that her private 90 acres be opened to the public because there was a historic family graveyard on the land.
Rose Mary Knick filed a claim in state court for just compensation, according to the Fifth Amendment, prompting the township to strategically withdraw its notice to her of violation and stopping enforcement.
With no “enforcement” pending, the state court refused to act on her request for a ruling. She then took her case to federal court, which dismissed the complaint, citing a Supreme Court ruling that landowners must seek just compensation in a state system first.
But in the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said Friday’s ruling over-ruled the state-litigation requirement established in that case against Williamson County, Texas.
“The unanticipated consequence of this ruling was that a takings plaintiff who complied with Williamson County and brought a compensation claim in state court would – on proceeding to federal court after the unsuccessful state claim – have the federal claim barred because the full faith and credit statute required the federal court to give preclusive effect to the state court’s decisions,” he wrote.
“This court has long recognized that property owners may bring Fifth Amendment claims for compensation as soon as their property has been taken, regardless of any other post-taking remedies that may be available to the property owner. The court departed from that understanding in Williamson County and held that a taking gives rise not to a constitutional right to just compensation, but instead gives a right to a state law procedure that will eventually result in just compensation.
“The state-litigation requirement of Williamson County is overruled. Williamson County was poorly reasoned and conflicts with much of the court’s takings jurisprudence.”
The Fifth Amendment requires that private property cannot be taken for public use without just compensation.
Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote a biting dissent against the five-member majority’s decision to overrule a precedent. She claimed the new standard would require government payment “in advance” or at the time of the taking.
She charged that “judges do not get to reverse a decision just because they never liked it in the first instance.”
“Just last month, when the court overturned another longstanding precedent, Justice Breyer penned a dissent. … He wrote of the dangers of reversing legal course ‘only because five members of a later court’ decide that an earlier ruling was incorrect. He concluded: ‘Today’s decision can only cause one to wonder which cases the court will overrule next.’
“Well,” wrote Kagan, “that didn’t take long. Now one may wonder yet again.”
Kagan, however, offered no such criticism of the narrow 5-4 decision that overruled millennia of cultural norms and created same-sex marriage.
Court observers point out that “precedent” and previous rulings all of a sudden are being put on a pedestal by the court’s left because of the appointment by President Trump of two conservative justices who could help overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling establishing a right to abortion.
However, even the author of the majority opinion in the 1973 case, Justice Harry Blackmun, expressed doubts about the basis of the
“The Constitution allows government to take private property and make it public, like the township did to Rose, said the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented Knick.. “But it must follow one condition: the government must pay ‘just compensation.’ Yet Scott Township refused to pay Rose. In fact, the township won’t even concede that it has taken anything from her; instead it threatened her with fines of $600 per day.”