The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case seeking to overturn a Supreme Court precedent that has hindered property owners from protecting their rights in federal courts.
Knick v. Scott Township in Pennsylvania centers on an ordinance
Rose Mary Knick sued, but a federal court refused to hear her federal claim, citing the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank. The ruling held property owners must take their federal property rights claims to state courts before going to federal courts.
But state courts refused to take Knick’s case, and her defender, the Pacific Legal Foundation, contends the Supreme Court has given the right to private property second-class status. It’s the only right guaranteed by the Constitution not directly enforceable by federal courts, Pacific Legal points out.
The dispute arose when township officials abruptly adopted an ordinance that requires landowners to open their property to the public if there are claims that a historical gravesite exists on the land, as
Knick’s property has been in her family for half a century, and someone claimed there was on old gravesite on the land, despite lack of evidence.
Pacific Legal explains that one can go to federal court for censorship or other constitutional rights violations, but “when it comes to your property rights, all bets are off.”
In the 1985 Supreme Court case, the court held that property owners must sue in state court when they claim state or local government violates the Fifth Amendment by taking their property without paying for it.
“In other words, the Supreme Court slammed federal courthouse doors shut to most property rights claims,” Pacific Legal said.
“Only one other group faces similar obstacles: prisoners.”
But the foundation said prisoners “still have better access to federal court than individuals who want to enforce their constitutional right to just compensation when government takes property without paying for it.”
“Prisoners can go to federal court to enforce their rights, after they unsuccessfully seek justice through a prison’s available grievance procedures. In contrast, if property owners fail at enforcing their constitutional rights in state court, they still cannot go to federal court to vindicate their Fifth Amendment rights to just compensation.”
The lawyers said that as a result, many property rights claims have been defeated as owners have been locked out of federal courts and sent to state courts that too often favor government.
“Other times, property owners mistakenly file in federal court and run out of resources litigating about where they should have sued. In some cases, shrewd government attorneys take advantage of the rule, using a federal law to move the claim to federal court, and then convincing the federal court to dismiss the claim as violating the rule from Williamson County,” they said.
“Scott Township’s graveyard law forces property owners to allow warrantless searches by government and unbridled trespassing by the public,” Senior Attorney J. David Breemer said.
. It’s bounded by fences, stone walls and “No Trespassing” signs.
“There is no cemetery mentioned in the chain of title going back hundreds of years,” said Pacific Legal Foundation, which has won numerous property rights cases at the Supreme Court.
“Nevertheless, in 2013, a town enforcement officer entered the property searching for graveyards. Soon after, Ms. Knick was issued a notice of violation claiming her property contained an old burial ground that had not been kept open to the public. She later received a second notice of violation.”
Knick said: “It was unbelievable that the town would trample all over my rights this way, making it open season for trespassing on my land. I am very hopeful that the Supreme Court will take a stand for the Constitution, and for everybody’s property rights, by striking down this outrageous law.”
Isolated grave sites are not uncommon in parts of the country where there is no ban on burials on private ground. And, indeed, sometimes burials date back to before rules and regulations were in place. So the plains of Pennsylvania contain small burial plots for families.