U.S. Supreme Court Issues Ruling Regarding Property Rights          

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US Supreme Court Property Rights

Although not widely covered in the mainstream media, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a ruling that overruled prior Supreme Court precedent that required a landowner to first exhaust property taking cases in state court before suing in federal court. The decision allows plaintiffs that believe a local government has taken their property, to sue directly in federal court for violation of the Fifth Amendment. Previously, these plaintiffs had to first pursue their claims in state court, under reasoning if a state court provides an adequate remedy, then federal courts should only hear cases where the state court has denied compensation for the taken property.

The Plaintiff in the case is the owner of approximately 90 acres of farmland, on which a Pennsylvania township believes contains an old cemetery or burial ground. At issue was a municipal ordinance that required the property owner to allow public access during daylight hours to the old burial grounds and cemeteries. Acting under the authority of the ordinance, township officials (without Plaintiff’s permission) went on to the Plaintiff’s land to search for a cemetery and located what they believed to be grave markers. The township then cited the Plaintiff for failing to follow the ordinance and allow the public access to the cemetery. The Plaintiff argued that this compulsory requirement that she provide access to her property constituted a “taking” of her private property without compensation.

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the Plaintiff’s appeal in March of 2018 and the Court heard oral argument in October of 2018 and January of 2019. In June of 2019, the Court issued a 5-4 decision in favor of the Plaintiff. The Court’s decision reversed prior precedent that required litigants to first seek relief in state courts before seeking relief in the federal courts. The Court reasoned that, “A property owner has an actionable Fifth Amendment takings claim when the government takes his property without paying for it.” The Court held that it is a constitutional question when private land is taken without compensation, which is appropriate for federal court review.

The decision could have a wide-reaching impact on where challenges to environmental and zoning laws are litigated. The full decision can be read at Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, et al.

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