SCOTUS Overturns Property Rights Case -- More to Come?

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on June 25, 2019 3:00 PM

Near the end of the new majority's term, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled property owners may go directly to federal court with claims that state or local government deprived them of property rights.

The 5-4 decision also overruled a 1985 precedent that held property owners had to pursue their claims in state courts first. It marked the second time in two months that the Supreme Court has overruled its own decisions.

As the conservative justices took control in Knick v. Township of Scott, Justice Elena Kagan summed it up in a bitter defeat: "Well that didn't take long."

'Didn't Take Long'

It was a significant victory for Rose Mary Knick, who owns land in Scott Township, Pennsylvania. The property includes her house, a grazing area, and a small cemetery.

When the town ruled all cemeteries must be open to the public, Knick alleged the town had taken her property without compensation. Federal courts dismissed her case, saying she should have pursued it in state court under Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said "the state litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden" on property owners who claim unlawful takings by government. Kagan, joined by the court's liberal justices, dissented. They faulted their colleagues for overturning precedent without good reason.

"It is hard to overstate the value, in a country like ours, of stability in law," she said, noting a similar observation by Justice Stephen Breyer last month.

'Stability in the Law'

In Franchise Tax Board v. Hyatt, Breyer questioned the decision because it also overruled precedent. Overturning well-reasoned decisions undermines the stability of the law, and "can only cause one to wonder which cases the court will overrule next," he and the dissenters said.

With the conservatives in charge, many speculated that Roe v. Wade is trouble. For now, it appears the justices were talking about Williamson County.

Meanwhile, Justice Clarence Thomas is still fanning the flames against stare decisis. In Gamble v. United States, he dissented this month and called his colleagues to think more about overruling precedent.

"In my view, the Court's typical formulation of the stare decisis standard does not comport with our judicial duty under Article III because it elevates demonstrably erroneous decisions -- meaning decisions outside the realm of permissible interpretation -- over the text of the Constitution and other duly enacted federal law," he wrote.

Next term may be more of the same, yet more different than it has been in decades.

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