Supreme Court Rules Against Local Governments in Important Takings Case
Let’s hope Justice Kagan is wrong about this ominous prediction in her dissenting opinion in Knick v. Township of Scott: “today’s decision means that government regulators will often have no way to avoid violating the Constitution.”
In a 5-4 opinion the Supreme Court held that a property owner may proceed directly to federal court with a takings claim. In Knick the Court overturned (1985), which held that before a takings claim may be brought in federal court, a property owner must first seek just compensation under state law in state court. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) urged the Court to keep Williamson County.
The Township of Scott adopted an ordinance requiring cemeteries, whether located on public or private land, to be open and accessible to the public during the day. Code enforcement could enter any property to determine the “existence and location” of a cemetery.
In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts the Court held that the state-litigation requirement of Williamson County is overruled. The Court reasoned the Takings Clause doesn’t say: “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without an available procedure that will result in compensation.” “If a local government takes private property without paying for it, that government has violated the Fifth Amendment—just as the Takings Clause says—without regard to subsequent state court proceedings. And the property owner may sue the government at that time in federal court for the ‘deprivation’ of a right ‘secured by the Constitution.’”
The majority of the Justices were willing to overturn precedent in this case because Williamson County wasn’t just “wrong.” “Its reasoning was exceptionally ill founded and conflicted with much of our takings jurisprudence.”
The SLLC argued the Supreme Court should not overturn Williamson County because lower courts have ensured that the state-compensation requirement is not “gamed to deprive property owners of their day in court.”
The brief also explained why state courts are a better forum for deciding these cases than federal courts. State courts are much more familiar with state property law and “are far more expert in the state statutory issues that so often accompany takings claims.” In her dissent Justice Kagan was sympathetic of this argument noting that the consequence of Knick “is to channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into federal courts.”