August 27, 2018

Supreme Court reconsiders rule that gave prisoners better access to federal courts than property owners

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

When government violates constitutional rights, most people assume they can seek justice in federal courts.

Usually that assumption is correct. For instance, if your local city unconstitutionally censors your speech, you can go to federal court and sue. The same rule applies when government violates nearly any constitutional right. But when it comes to your property rights, all bets are off.

Thirty-three years ago, the Supreme Court gave property rights second-class status in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City. The Court held that property owners must sue in state court when they claim state or local government violates the Fifth Amendment by taking their property without paying for it. In other words, the Supreme Court slammed federal courthouse doors shut to most property rights claims.

Only one other group faces similar obstacles: prisoners. The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that before an inmate may bring a federal lawsuit challenging prison conditions, he must first take advantage of the prison’s available grievance procedures, which could eliminate the need for his lawsuit. Congress adopted this Act to curtail perceived abuses of the judicial process by inmates.

But prisoners still have better access to federal court than individuals who want to enforce their constitutional right to just compensation when government takes property without paying for it. Prisoners can go to federal court to enforce their rights, after they unsuccessfully seek justice through a prison’s available grievance procedures. In contrast, if property owners fail at enforcing their constitutional rights in state court, they still cannot go to federal court to vindicate their Fifth Amendment rights to just compensation.

As a result, many property rights claims have been defeated as property owners have been locked out of federal courts and sent to state courts that too often favor government. Other times, property owners mistakenly file in federal court and run out of resources litigating about where they should have sued. In some cases, shrewd government attorneys take advantage of the rule, using a federal law to move the claim to federal court, and then convincing the federal court to dismiss the claim as violating the rule from Williamson County.

PLF client Rose Knick knows firsthand the trouble caused by the rule. Rose went to state court after Scott Township opened up her private farm to the public without paying her for the easement. The town threatened her with fines of up to $600 per day if she didn’t voluntarily comply. Rose knew her rights and filed in state court  to vindicate her Fifth Amendment right to just compensation. But that court said she would have to wait until she was actually prosecuted before she could enforce her rights in state court. So Rose went to federal court for relief. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed that the Township’s actions were constitutionally suspect but ultimately dismissed her claim, stating that it had no ability to hear it under Williamson County.

Property owners like Rose should not be treated worse than inmates—locked out of federal courts.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has agreed to review Rose’s case and consider reversing itself. On October 3, 2018, the Court will hear our argument. We are hopeful it will finally stop treating property owners worse than prisoners and open the federal courthouse doors to them. Our rights to property are fundamental rights. It’s time the federal courts recognize that.

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Knick v. Scott Township Pennsylvania

In 2013, government agents forced Rose Knick to allow public access to a suspected gravesite on her farmland. Rose sued over the unconstitutional property taking. But a federal court refused to hear her federal claim citing the 1985 Supreme Court decision Williamson County. Rose has asked the Court to overturn this precedent so property rights are on equal footing with other rights such as due process and free speech. On behalf of Rose and all property owners, PLF will argue Knick before the Supreme Court on October 3, 2018.

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