Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, 588 U.S. __, 139 S. Ct. 2162 (2019)

In a Major Victory for Property Rights, the Supreme Court Overrules a Catch-22 Which Had Kept Certain Takings Claims out of Federal Courts.

Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, 588 U.S. __, 139 S. Ct. 2162 (2019)

For over thirty years NELF joined with other property rights organizations in urging the Supreme Court to overrule the so-called Williamson County ripening requirement.  In Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), the Supreme Court issued one of the most controversial rulings in the history of constitutional property rights.  It ruled that a Fifth Amendment takings claim against a state agency or local government cannot be brought in federal court until after the property owner has sued for compensation in state court and lost.  Only then, the Court reasoned, would the property owner have received a final state determination that just compensation would not be forthcoming, thereby “ripening” the claim for federal litigation.  Typically, however, after the property owner filed a federal action, the “ripe” claim was dismissed because the state court’s judgment was afforded preclusive effect under the full faith and credit statute.  If dismissal did not befall the claim under that statute, a host of other grounds for dismissal were found, all tracing back to Williamson County’s ripening requirement.

This bait-and-switch ruling remained the law for over three decades.  As commentators noted, under Williamson County the property rights secured by the Takings Clause were the only federal rights denied a federal forum in this way.  Courts and commentators exhausted the resources of the English language in denouncing the requirement, calling it “ill-considered,” “bewildering,” “worse than mere chaos,” “misleading,” “deceptive,” “inherently nonsensical,” “shocking,” “absurd,”‘ “unjust,” “pernicious,” “a weapon of mass obstruction,” etc.  Despite misgivings expressed by four justices over the course of these years, the Court denied all petitions seeking reexamination Williamson County.  So the grant of certiorari in the present case –– in which a Pennsylvania property owner contested the constitutionality of a town ordinance requiring her to open her property to the public –– came as a long-sought opportunity to persuade the Court to overrule a requirement that never made any sense and whose operation has been wholly pernicious to property rights.

While many amicus briefs were filed in support of Mrs. Knick, NELF’s brief was unique in critiquing each step of the Williamson County Court’s reasoning.  NELF first criticized the Court’s reliance on Ruckelshaus v. Monsanto Co., 467 U.S. 986, 1013 (1984).  NELF pointed out that Monsanto involved only private negotiations and arbitration intended to determine merely the extent of a taking, if any, not to award just state compensation.  Next, NELF highlighted the circularity of the Court’s analogy under which federal litigation under the federal Tucker Act supposedly ripens takings claims for just compensation against the federal government.  In fact, NELF observed, litigation under the Tucker Act cannot ripen a takings claim because the Act is the mandatory statutory vehicle for resolving such claims, which, by definition, must be already ripe!

The confusion between ripening a claim and resolving it runs through much of Williamson County.  NELF stressed that the Court’s fundamental error lay in believing that the refusal to pay just compensation culminates only when a state court denies a money damages remedy to the aggrieved owner.  But a money damages remedy is not just compensation.  Only when just compensation has not been paid does an injury arise requiring a money damages remedy in court.  These two forms of compensation are not the same; they are mutually exclusive alternatives.  Admittedly, NELF pointed out, before Williamson County a line of cases had rested on the same confusion.

NELF concluded that the Williamson County decision “was ill supported and badly reasoned,” and urged the Court to abandon it.

On June 21, 2019, Supreme Court overturned Williamson County in its entirety.  Calling its state litigation requirement a “Catch-22” that relegates the Takings Clause to the status of “a poor relation among provisions of the Bill of Rights,” the Court identified some of the same faults in that case’s reasoning as NELF had critiqued, and the Court concluded, in words echoing NELF’s own, “Williamson County was not just wrong.  Its reasoning was exceptionally ill founded and conflicted with much of our takings jurisprudence.”  Also, echoing a point NELF made in a 2011 amicus brief, the Court now recognized that any state litigation itself presupposes a ripe Fifth Amendment claim.

Rather melodramatically, the dissent predicted that the ruling will open the floodgates to federal courts and “inevitably turn even well-meaning government officials into lawbreakers” and render them unable to work “without fear of wrongdoing.”  In fact, of course, takings litigation has long sought to prove that officials have taken unlawfully, and officials have never seemed undeterred thereby from taking.  See Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. United States, 568 U.S. 23 (2012) (officials argue no taking exists in their intermittently flooding forest for six years and destroying trees).  Indeed, three of the dissenting justices once dismissed their present concerns as empty alarmism.  See id. at 36. (“Time and again in Takings Clause cases, the Court has heard the prophecy that recognizing a just compensation claim would unduly impede the government’s ability to act in the public interest.”).


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