It’s a rare honor to be able to tell someone they won a landmark Supreme Court case. And when I called PLF client Rose Knick to let her know she won her property rights case at the U.S. Supreme Court, in typical Rose-fashion, her first words to me were very matter-of-fact.
“Tell me,” she said.
I could tell Rose was trying to process the news as I briefed her on the 5-4 decision in her case, Knick v. Scott Township, Pennsylvania. I could also sense her joy when she realized that her case overturned Williamson County—a nasty 1985 legal precedent that allowed federal courts to reject Fifth Amendment property takings claims like Rose’s. In other words, this 35-year-old mistake treated property rights as lesser rights than other constitutional protections, like free speech and due process.
Rose ran into Williamson County when she tried to challenge township officials over a local cemetery law that would have forced her to let random people onto her quiet 90-acre farmland in rural Pennsylvania to visit a rumored burial site.
She also had to keep the land accessible to the public, even though no burial site had ever been confirmed. The implications of the law haunted her every day, right up to the very morning of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“There’s just rain, and mud, and everything all over the place. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what would I do?’ There’s no way for one person to have a path open for people just going every which way. People would be walking on wet grass where they’d slip and fall. There’s no way to accomplish that.”
Rose’s concern about keeping a clear path for would-be grave seekers is a humble shadow of the desperation she felt in 2016, when she was running out of legal options—and money. So when her local lawyer told her he had a call with someone from PLF, she drove to his office, sat down at his desk, and insisted he put the caller on speaker.
“You know how you have ‘moments’ when things happen to you in your life? That moment for me was being in my lawyer’s office and sitting there, and Dave got on the phone,” recalled Rose. “It was like, ‘Thank God!’ He was the guardian angel.”
“Dave” was Dave Breemer, the PLF senior attorney whose own quest to upend Williamson County spanned 18 years. It was only fitting he brought Rose’s case to the highest court in the land, and argued on her behalf—twice. The first argument took place last fall, during the first week of the Court’s October term before the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh. The second was in January, a rare reargument that puts Rose in an exclusive group with Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board, and Citizens United.
“I couldn’t have done it myself. I never heard of Williamson County and I didn’t know any of this stuff. I just knew about the Constitution and I knew that it wasn’t right what the township was doing,” Rose said. “Here, Dave and Pacific Legal Foundation were 3,000 miles away from me and we had no knowledge. Your organization came to my rescue.”
While excited about the prospect of putting the cemetery ordinance to rest for good, Rose is elated knowing that her victory also opened courtroom doors for property owners throughout the entire country.
“To think that finally they’re following and doing the Constitution the way it’s supposed to be. Finally,” said Rose. “Thank God that finally everybody in the United States and this country is going to have a fair chance.”