Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania

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Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued January 16, 2019
Decided June 21, 2019
Full case nameRose Mary Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, et al.
Docket no.17-647
Citations588 U.S. (more)
Case history
PriorMotion to dismiss granted, No. 3:14-CV-02223, 2016 WL 4701549 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 07, 2016); affirmed, 862 F.3d 310 (3d Cir. 2017); cert. granted, 138 S. Ct. 1262 (2018).
A government violates the takings clause when it takes property without compensation, and a property owner may bring a Fifth Amendment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 at that time; the state-litigation requirement of Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, is overruled.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Sonia Sotomayor · Elena Kagan
Neil Gorsuch · Brett Kavanaugh
Case opinions
MajorityRoberts, joined by Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh
DissentKagan, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor
This case overturned a previous ruling or rulings
Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City (in part)

Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, No. 17-647, 588 U.S. ___ (2019), was a case before the Supreme Court of the United States dealing with compensation for private property owners when the use of that property is taken from them by state or local governments, under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The immediate question asks if private land owners must exhaust all state-offered venues for mediation before seeking action in the federal courts. The case specifically addresses the Court's prior decision from the 1985 case Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, which had previously established that all state court venues must be exhausted first, but which has since resulted in several split decisions among circuit courts. The Supreme Court ruled in June 2019 to overturn part of Williamson County that required state venue action be taken first, allowing taking-compensation cases to be brought directly to federal court.[1]


The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment allows federal, state, and local governments to take private property for public use under eminent domain, as long as the private landowner is justly compensated for the taking of their property.[2]

In Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, the Supreme Court determined that cases regarding questions of fair compensation for private property taken by state or local governments, that there was a ripeness doctrine that should be considered before the case could be heard by a federal court. That is, such cases must be first challenged at all appropriate local and state levels, and only after these challenges have failed, can the case be heard within the District Courts. This decision has come under scrutiny as it thus tends to favor state and local governments; private property owners that challenge when they are not fairly compensated for when their land is taken must then put up the costs of exhausting the cases through all appropriate state courts before challenging the decision at the federal level.[3][4]

In the immediate case, Rose Mary Knick of Pennsylvania had purchased 90 acres of farmland within Scott Township, Lackawanna County in 1970. Around 2008, another resident of the township discovered documentation that suggested one of their relatives may have been buried in a cemetery within Knick's land. In 2008, a dispute rose between Knick, the resident, and the township about allowing the resident access to Knick's private property to search for this cemetery. Knick asserted there was no evidence of such, her land title did not include any mention of a cemetery, nor was any cemetery registered with the state. The Township passed an ordinance in 2012 that required any cemetery operated within the Township to have right-of-way access from the nearest public road, and be open to public during daylight hours. After passing the ordinance, a Township official went onto Knick's property without permission, discovered a set of stones they deemed to be a cemetery, and determined Knick to be in violation of the ordinance. They filed their first formal complaint in April 2013. Knick did not comply, leading to a second complaint in October 2014.[5][6]

After receiving the first formal complaint, Knick sought relief from the Pennsylvania court of common pleas, believing her land was being taken without compensation, but the court refused to accept the case as the Township had yet to file a civil enforcement action against her. She subsequently appealed to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, citing facial challenges based on the Township's new ordinance violating her Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights in addition to takings claims. By September 2016, the District Court dismissed the case, arguing that it was unripe for federal courts as per Williamson County. Knick challenged again to the Third Circuit Appeals Court. While the Third Circuit did consider if the various tests prescribed by Williamson County were applicable to the facial challenges presented by Knick, the Court ultimately deemed that Knick's case was unripe until Knick had prosecuted a state-level lawsuit.[5][6]

Supreme Court[edit]

Knick petitioned the Supreme Court for writ of certiorari. Knick's petition pointed out that there was a split in how Williamson County was applied in the Circuit Courts. The Third Circuit's decision agreed with the Sixth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits in prior case law, but was in conflict with the First, Fourth, and Seventh Circuits. Additionally, the petition referred to Justice John Roberts' denial for writ of certiorari in Arrigoni Enterprises, LLC v. Durham (2016), a case that also sought to challenge the Williamson County decision, which had been joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy. In the denial, Roberts suggested that it was necessary for the Supreme Court to review Williamson County, due to the onus it puts on property owners, but required a proper case for that review.[5]

The Court accepted the petition in March 2018, with the first oral arguments heard on October 3, 2018, before an eight-member Supreme Court, as Justice Brett Kavanaugh had yet to be sworn into office. In November 2018, the Court announced it would hold an additional briefing and re-argument for Knick; while the Court did not provide a rationale, analysts believed that this indicated the eight Justices were deadlocked, thus requiring Justice Kavanaugh to take part in the case to break the deadlock.[7] The second oral hearings before the full court was held January 16, 2019.

The Court issued its judgment on June 21, 2019.[1] In its 5–4 decision along ideological lines, it vacated the Third Circuit's judgment and remanded the case to the lower court. The decision overruled the portion of Williamson County decision that required those seeking legal action for takings-compensation to seek state litigation first, finding that the original decision was poorly reasoned. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, writing that "A property owner has an actionable Fifth Amendment takings claim when the government takes his property without paying for it."[8] The opinion emphasized that unfair compensation when private land is taken is constitutional violation, and thus ripe for the federal court system.[2] Justice Clarence Thomas joined the majority, and in a separate opinion, wrote "Stare decisis does not compel continued adherence to this erroneous precedent."[9] Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent and expressed concerns that by eliminating the need to bring such takings-compensation cases to state courts first, it could require federal courts to become involved in understanding complex state law issues.[8] Kagan's decision also expressed concern that Knick along with other recent Court decisions such as Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt shows a trend that the current Court is ready to ignore long-standing precedent and overturn past rulings. Justice Stephen Breyer had expressed similar concern in his dissent with Hyatt.[2][9]


  1. ^ a b Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, No. 17-647, 588 U.S. ___ (2019).
  2. ^ a b c Totenberg, Nina (June 22, 2019). "Supreme Court Overturns Precedent In Property Rights Case. A Sign Of Things To Come?". NPR. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  3. ^ [1][dead link]
  4. ^ Somin, Ilya. "Opinion - The Justices Can Undo a Constitutional Catch-22". Retrieved 22 June 2019.
  5. ^ a b c "ROSE MARY KNICK, Petitioner, v. TOWNSHIP OF SCOTT; CARL S. FERRARO" (PDF). Retrieved 22 June 2019.
  6. ^ a b Nark, Jason. "SCOTUS will dig into debate over alleged cemetery on Pa. farm". Retrieved 22 June 2019.
  7. ^ "Busy afternoon at the Supreme Court: Six grants and one reargument order, but no stay in census dispute". 2 November 2018. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
  8. ^ a b Wolf, Richard (June 21, 2019). "Conservative victory: Supreme Court gives property owners fast track to challenge government takings". USA Today. Retrieved June 21, 2019.
  9. ^ a b de Vogue, Ariana (June 21, 2019). "Elena Kagan becomes latest liberal justice to sound alarm on precedent". CNN. Retrieved June 22, 2019.

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