In Knick v. Township of Scott, Graveyards, Trespassing, and the U.S. Constitution

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Like many cases accepted by the Supreme Court, the case of Knick v. Township of Scott involves a common theme in judicial circles. One party is asking to overturn long-standing Supreme Court precedent.

Unfortunately for states and local governments, the precedent on the chopping block arises in the property rights context (where the more conservative Supreme Court tends to favor property owners), and is generally considered favorable to states and local governments.

The case began when the Township of Scott adopted an ordinance requiring cemeteries, whether public or private, to be free and open and accessible to the public during the day. Code enforcement could enter any property to determine the “existence and location” of a cemetery.

The Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution states that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Rose Mary Knick sued the county in federal (rather than state) court, claiming the ordinance was invalid per the Takings Clause after code enforcement went onto her property without a warrant looking for a cemetery.

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In Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City (1985), the Supreme Court held that before a takings claim may be brought in federal court landowners must comply with state law procedures and remedies enacted to provide just compensation in a takings case.

The Third Circuit agreed with the Township that Knick failed to comply with the Williamson County, because she filed her case in federal court instead of pursuing her takings claim under Pennsylvania’s Eminent Domain Code.

Knick argues that the Supreme Court should overturn Williamson County because it “deprives property owners of reasonable judicial access for a takings claim, impedes the orderly development of takings law, and causes a tremendous waste of judicial and litigant resources.”

The Township of Scott defended Williamson County’s state court first requirement as “founded in the very language of the Fifth Amendment, and . . . consistent with Article III’s requirement of a case or controversy, with other principles of federalism, and with the recognition of the uniquely complex and local issues presented by land use regulation.”

The Supreme Court has repeatedly and recently refused to hear petitions arguing Williamson County should be overturned. This case will provide Justice Gorsuch his first opportunity to participate in a takings case on the Supreme Court. Oral argument will be held in the fall.

lisa_soronen_new_125x150About the author: Lisa Soronen is the executive director of the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC), which files Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the Big Seven national organizations, including the National League of Cities, representing state and local governments. She is a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.