The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday, that landowners can bring claims for compensation over government-taken land directly to federal court, bypassing local governments.

The decision was split 5-4 among Republican and Democrat-appointed judges, with Justice John Roberts writing the opinion.

“But because the violation is complete at the time of the taking, pursuit of a remedy in federal court need not await any subsequent state action,” Roberts wrote. “Takings claims against local governments should be handled the same as other claims under the Bill of Rights.”

Rose Mary Knick, the petitioner in this case, owns 90 acres of land in Scott Township, Pennsylvania, a community north of Scranton. Knick lives in a single-family home on the property and uses the property’s large acreage as a grazing area for farm animals.

In one section of the property sits a small graveyard where the ancestors of Knick’s neighbors are buried. It’s fairly common to have a small family cemetery in Pennsylvania, according to Roberts.

In 2012, the township passed an ordinance requiring all cemeteries be kept open and accessible to the public during daylight hours and authorized township code enforcement officers to enter any property to determine the location and existence of any such cemeteries.

“In 2013, a Township officer found several grave markers on Knick’s property and notified her that she was violating the ordinance by failing to open the cemetery to the public during the day,” Roberts wrote. “Knick responded by seeking declaratory and injunctive relief in state court on the ground that the ordinance effected a taking of her property.”

The decision vacates and remands an earlier Third Circuit decision in the 1985 Williamson County Regional Planning Commission vs. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City decision, which required a property owner to first take their claim for relief to a local government.

“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,” Roberts wrote.

Joining Roberts were Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

Email Patrick Kearns

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