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Supreme Court agrees to hear Pennsylvania property rights case

| Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 9:39 a.m.

Should the U.S. Supreme Court make it easier for property owners to file federal lawsuits against governments who commandeer their property?

A Lackawanna County farm owner and a public-interest law firm that champions individuals' property rights say yes. The municipality they're suing says no.

Rose Mary Knick and the Pacific Legal Foundation cleared a major hurdle Monday when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

The main issue in the appeal is a 1985 Supreme Court decision, Williamson Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, that made it nearly impossible to pursue a “takings claims” in federal court, according to Ilya Somin, a George Mason University law professor.

“Williamson County creates an egregious Catch-22 trap for property owners: before they can bring a claim in federal court, they must first go through state courts and administrative agencies,” he writes in a blog about the high court agreeing to hear the Pennsylvania case. “But the very act of going to state court makes it virtually impossible to later appeal the case to a federal court! This is the kind of Kafkaesque idiocy that gives the legal profession a bad name.”

For more on the legal technicalities, you can read Somin's blog as well as the Pacific Legal Foundation's website or the SCOTUSblog site that includes the township's response. The short version is that if you think people should be able to sue governments in federal court for taking their property, root for Knick to win her appeal.

In the underlying lawsuit, Knick claims that Scott Township — the one in Lackawanna County — took some of her property without compensation when it passed an ordinance allowing the general public daytime access to the part of her 90-acre farm that the municipality claims contains graves dating back to the 1800s.

A federal judge threw out her takings claim based on the 1985 Supreme Court decision because she didn't pursue a state claim for compensation.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling on the legal technicality but also signaled that she maybe should have tried another angle of attack.

“The township's ordinance is extraordinary and constitutionally suspect,” the judges said in their decision.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218, or via Twitter @TribBrian.

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