The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling last month in Knick v. Township of Scott which strengthened a citizen’s ability to challenge government takings of private property. The decision means that landowners can bring takings claims, such as Rails-to-Trails challenges, directly in federal court rather than spending years in state court first.
The recent case arose when the township of Scott, Pennsylvania passed an ordinance requiring that all cemeteries be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours. Rose Mary Knick was found to be in violation of this ordinance when she failed to keep the small family cemetery on her 90 acres of farmland accessible to the public during the day.
Arguing that the ordinance violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, Knick sought declaratory and injunctive relief in state court. She alleged that the ordinance effected a regulatory taking of her property because it impaired her right to use the land. However, the state court declined to rule on her claim.
Subsequently, the lower federal courts dismissed her claims because the 1985 Supreme Court case, Williamson County, required that she bring an inverse condemnation action in state court before filing in federal court.
In deciding this case, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Williamson County – holding that the state first litigation requirement is unworkable in practice. If a property owner brings an inverse condemnation suit in state court, the full faith and credit statute bars the case from being relitigated in federal court.
The Court held that a property owner’s Fifth Amendment right to just compensation arises immediately when a taking occurs. It does not depend on what remedies are available to the property owner or whether the taking occurred by the local, state, or federal level of government.
The holding bears no effect on the constitutionality of a regulation or condemnation. It only provides a direct, federal remedy for property owners to seek just compensation.