Knick v. Scott Township Re-opens Federal Courts to Property Owners

In June 2019, the US Supreme Court held in Knick v. Township of Scott, 588 US ____(2019), that property owners alleging 5th Amendment “Takings” by state and local governments can once again directly pursue claims against a state entity, such as municipality, in federal court. Knick specifically overrules Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U. S. 172 (1985), an from 1985 that required that persons allegedly wronged by state entities must first exhaust all state-court remedies before being allowed to enter federal court.

The Kafkaesque, Williamson County Overruled

Williamson County placed property owners in a potentially expensive and Kafkaesque situation. If the property owner followed Williamson County and lost in state court, the state court decision itself barred bringing a claim in federal court due to claim preclusion (full faith and credit clause of 28 U. S. C. §1738) according to San Remo Hotel, L. P. v. City and County of San Francisco, 545 U. S. 323 (2005).

Knick overrules Williamson County. Knick re-recognizes that the Constitution requires that compensation issue as soon as the takings occurs because the Constitutional claim arises immediately upon taking (see also First English Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale v. County of Los Angeles, 482 U. S. 304 (1987)):

The Fifth Amendment right to full compensation arises at the time of the taking, regardless of post-taking remedies that may be available to the property owner. [7]

Therefore, the claim is immediately ripe for federal court [11,15].

Knick also re-emphasizes that the Fifth Amendment claim stands separate from, not dependent upon, state court procedures:

The availability of any particular compensation remedy, such as an inverse condemnation claim under state law, cannot infringe or restrict the property owner’s federal constitutional claim—just as the existence of a state action for battery does not bar a Fourth Amendment claim of excessive force. The fact that the State has provided a property owner with a procedure that may subsequently result in just compensation cannot deprive the owner of his Fifth Amendment right to compensation under the Constitution, leaving only the state law right.And that is key because it is the existence of the Fifth Amendment right that allows the owner to proceed directly to federal court under §1983. [8]

State entities cannot require the property owner to 1)  follow circuitous state procedures and 2) spend significant amounts of time and money on state court litigation before taking the municipality to court on a federal claim [13].

Government May Take Property But Must Pay Immediately

Property owners should understand that Knick does not prohibit the taking of property by the government. To the contrary, Knick specifically recognizes the government’s ability to take private property for public use.

Knick Subtly Holds State & Local Governments Accountable Again

Knick represents a re-calibration of property rights and Constitutional law. The government cannot merely promise to pay for a taking at some later date or provide some type of state or local administrative, regulatory, or other procedure in lieu of compensation. The moment the government takes private property, the government, as a prerequisite, owes the property owner the value of the taking. (See Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion at page 2 for additional emphasis). Government acting otherwise, under Knick, acts ultra vires.

But Knick also subtly limits a state’s impairment of federal procedures. While this argument remains to be seen in practice, Knick appears to give a plaintiff the option to seek federal court remedies first because the federal claims arise immediately upon taking. The latter is subtle but the majority opinion recognizes that the potential claim for takings arises when the takings occurs regardless of compensation.

Analyzing a Political Dissent

The dissenters sharply criticized overruling Williamson County and criticized the majority’s analysis of takings.

The dissenters apparently fear the Court’s overruling other, unrelated precedents–likely Roe v. Wade. However, the Supreme Court has a duty to overrule Constitutionally defective holdings regardless of precedent–for example, Dred Scott and Brown v. Board of Education. Thus, the overruling criticism seems misplaced and political, not legal.

The dissent’s criticism of the majority’s analysis of takings reflects a marked difference in Constitutional analysis. The Dissenters argue that in takings, a Constitutional claim only arises if BOTH a taking occurs and no compensation issues–ever. The Dissent favors the government in their analysis over the property owner. To the Dissent, as long as the government provides some procedure alleging compensation at some time in the future, no Constitutional claim can ever issue in takings cases.

This differs markedly from the Constitutional text and subverts the primacy of private-property rights. The Majority understands that a potential Constitutional claim arises as soon as the government takes private property for public use–e.g., Kelo, Loretto, or Penn Central –because the issue of whether a takings for public purpose took place raises a Constitutional claim separate from the compensation. Williamson County apparently foreclosed such claims.