Supreme Court: Takings Claims Can Go Directly to Federal Court

The United States Supreme Court issued a surprising decision on June 21 that allowed takings claims to proceed directly to federal court. The decision overturned longstanding precedent that required property owners whose property had been taken by a state or local government to first seek redress in state court before being allowed to seek relief in federal court.

The Supreme Court case of Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City (473 U.S. 172 (1985)) first established the requirement that a state or local government takings claim first be tried in state court. However, the Supreme Court overruled Williamson County in a 5-4 split decision in the case of Knick v. Township of Scott.

In Knick, Scott Township, Pennsylvania, enacted an ordinance in 2012 requiring all public and private cemeteries be properly maintained an accessible to the public during daylight hours. Knick owned approximately 90 acres of property within the Township and the land did contain a small family cemetery. After being found in violation of the ordinance by Township officials, Knick sued in federal court arguing that there was an unlawful taking under the Fifth Amendment without just compensation.

Knick’s claim was first dismissed by the Federal District Court and on appeal the Third Circuit agreed with the Township that Knick failed to comply with the Williamson County requirement as Knick did not first pursue an inverse-condemnation proceeding in Pennsylvania Court. Knick then appealed to the Supreme Court.

In the majority decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:

We now conclude that the state-litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden on takings plaintiffs, conflicts with the rest of our takings jurisprudence, and must be overruled.  A property owner has an actionable Fifth Amendment takings claim when the government takes his property without paying for it.  That does not mean that the government must provide compensation in advance of a taking or risk having its action invalidated: So long as the property owner has some way to obtain compensation after the fact, governments need not fear that courts will enjoin their activities.  But it does mean that the property owner has suffered a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights when the government takes his property without just compensation, and therefore may bring his claim in federal court under §1983 at that time.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring decision. Justice Elena Kagan was joined by three other justices in a dissent. Kagan noted:

Today, the Court formally overrules Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U. S. 172 (1985).  But its decision rejects far more than that single case. Williamson County was rooted in an understanding of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause stretching back to the late 1800s.  On that view, a government could take property so long as it provided a reliable mechanism to pay just compensation, even if the payment came after the fact.  No longer. 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. 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. And it transgresses all usual principles of stare decisis.

The full effect that this decision will have on local governments has yet to be determined. As part of the dissent, Kagan noted that even the most well-meaning local government officials could unintentionally violate the takings requirement as it is often unforeseeable in advance when an ordinance could be a property taking.

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US Supreme Court Decision Knick v. Township of Scott (June 21, 2019)