Imagine that the local government passes an ordinance that makes it impossible to develop your property. Worse, it requires that you provide the public access to your property, whether you want to or not—effectively denying your most basic property rights. To top it all off, the local government says it isn’t going to pay you a dime for the public’s intrusion. “If you want to fight,” the local government says, “sue us.”
Unfortunately, until last week, suing the city in federal court would not have been an option. Under a bizarre case from the 1980’s (Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U. S. 172 (1985)) federal courts were barred from hearing property rights claims against state and local governments unless the property owner first sued and lost every appeal in state court.
That’s a big deal. Navigating the state court system can take years and costs thousands of dollars. Worse, if you were in one of the twenty states with elected trial judges, then the first judge to hear your case would have been elected by the same folks who voted to take your property in the first place. You don’t have to be a legal cynic to think that might lower your odds of success. Potential bias aside, there a plenty of other reasons that you may want a federal judge with a background in federal constitutional law and crew of top-flight law clerks to decide a complicated takings claim, instead of an over-worked local trial judge who is likely buried in car crash and family law claims.
Despite these obvious problems, however, property rights lawsuits have been the forced into state court for the past 34 years.
That all changed last week when the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Knick v. Township of Scott.* The case arose when Mrs. Knick was informed that she might have a long-abandoned cemetery on her property. Under a township ordinance, the potential existence of that cemetery meant that Mrs. Knick had to let strangers seeking to visit the alleged cemetery walk through her property unimpeded almost whenever they wanted. Mrs. Knick sued in federal court arguing that the local ordinance had effectively taken her property without just compensation.
Like every property rights claim filed in federal courts for the last three decades, Mrs. Knick’s case was initially dismissed by the trial and appellate courts under the Williamson County precedent. This time, however, the Supreme Court decided to take up the case.
In a 5-4 decision by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court overturned Williamson County and held that Mrs. Knick was entitled to have her claims heard in federal court. According to the Court, property rights “claims against local governments should be handled the same as other claims under the Bill of Rights.” In other words, individuals whose property rights are violated by state or local governments may now sue in federal court, without spending years and thousands of dollars in state proceedings. That’s a huge win for private property owners and for Constitutional rights more broadly.
Going forward, potential property rights plaintiffs will be well-served to have an attorney with experience litigating constitutional claims so that they can be advised as to which forum (state or federal) will work best for their case.
* The Knick case was litigated by our friends at the Pacific Legal Foundation