We are thinking back to all of the blog posts that we have shared over the past few years, and most likely, this one is one of the more serious. We first read about it in The New York Times.
Last week the Supreme Court ruled that Plaintiffs may sue directly in federal court to seek just compensation as soon as state and local governments take their property through eminent domain. This recent ruling overturned a 1985 precedent, Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), which required property owners to first sue in State Court when their property was acquired by a State or local government via eminent domain, before being allowed to sue in federal court.
The court’s more conservative justices in the major with a vote of 5 to 4. What is so notable about the decision is about the court’s attitude toward precedent.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said overruling the Williamson County decision was justified because it “was not just wrong. “Its reasoning was exceptionally ill founded,” he wrote. He added that the decision had “come in for repeated criticism over the years from justices of this court and many respected commentators.”
The most recent case was brought by Rose Marie Knick, who owns 90 acres of land in rural Pennsylvania near Scranton that includes a small family cemetery. All cemeteries are required to be open to the public during daylight hours, according to the local township ordinance that was passed in 2012. Ms. Knick sued in federal court, saying the ordinance violated the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause, which says private property may not be taken for public use without just compensation.
In the earlier Williamson County case, the Supreme Court held that lawsuits claiming violation of the federal 5th Amendment takings clause had to first be brought in State Court. Each State has its own constitution, and its own takings clause. The Williamson County Court further held that there was no violation of the takings clause until the state or local government failed to pay just compensation after state-court litigation.
Chief Justice Roberts disagreed. Specifically, Justice Roberts wrote that:
Contrary to Williamson County, a property owner has a claim for a violation of the takings clause as soon as a government takes his property for public use without paying for it. A later payment of compensation may remedy the constitutional violation that occurred at the time of the taking, but that does not mean the violation never took place. The violation is the only reason compensation was owed in the first place. A bank robber might give the loot back, but he still robbed the bank.”
In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said that the analysis was worrisome, “today’s opinion smashes a hundred-plus years of legal rulings to smithereens.” She noted that the court had also overruled another major decision last month.
Quoting from Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissent in that case, “He wrote of the dangers of reversing legal course ‘only because five members of a later court’ decide that an earlier ruling was incorrect,” Justice Kagan wrote. “He concluded: ‘Today’s decision can only cause one to wonder which cases the court will overrule next.”
Justice Kagan also wrote that Chief Justice Roberts misunderstood the takings clause, which she said was not violated until the government failed to pay following proceedings about how much was owed. “Today’s decision thus overthrows the court’s long-settled view of the takings clause,” she wrote. “The majority declares, as against a mountain of precedent, that a government taking private property for public purposes must pay compensation at that moment or in advance.”
The decision in the case, Knick v. Township of Scott, No. 17-647, she wrote, “will subvert important principles of judicial federalism.”
“Today’s decision sends a flood of complex state-law issues to federal courts,” Justice Kagan wrote. “It makes federal courts a principal player in local and state land-use disputes. It betrays judicial federalism.”
But Justice Kagan reserved her harshest criticism for the majority’s attitude toward to power of precedent. “It is hard to overstate the value, in a country like ours, of stability in the law,” she wrote.