When you live in a small community, your neighbors and elected officials are often one and the same. The best way to keep tabs on both is to stay involved and ask tough questions.
And if the two worlds collide, make a federal case out of it.
That’s what I did when some officials in Scott Township, Lackawanna County passed a cemetery law requiring landowners to allow year-round public access to private property to visit purported burial sites.
The law, enacted in 2012, followed years of rumors around town that somewhere on my 90-acre farm lies an ancient burial site. That was news to me. I’ve lived there since 1970 and property records going back hundreds of years show no trace of a grave. In 2008 when the rumors first surfaced, I even hired an attorney to help me look for one. When we couldn’t find anything, I invited township officials to show us the supposed burial site (they declined).
I thought the matter was laid to rest, so to speak. But but I was wrong. My township came after me for violating the cemetery law. So, I went after the township for violating my private property rights — specifically, the Constitution’s protection against property takings without just compensation.
If those rights are good enough for the framers to include in the Constitution, then those rights are good enough for me to fight for.
That’s why I was utterly shocked when a federal court turned me away. Even though the judge called the cemetery law “extraordinary and constitutionally suspect,” he used a 1985 precedent called Williamson County vs. Hamilton Bank to kick my case back to state courts, where local governments typically use delay tactics until it’s too expensive for landowners to keep fighting.
I’d never heard of this Williamson County decision that allows federal courts to decline hearing Fifth Amendment takings claims like mine until they’ve gone through state courts. I thought all courts treated property rights the same as due process and free speech rights. But I soon became familiar with phrases like, “not in the right posture,” “not ripe,” and “you’re not in the right court,” and I knew it needed to be resolved one way or another.
That’s when I had a conversation with Dave Breemer, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney, and discovered he and PLF had been fighting for years to overturn Williamson County. And I realized that my case would be one of the best — and only — chances in a generation to fix this injustice.
Eleven years, countless court filings, a U.S. District Court, a U.S. Appeals Court, two U.S. Supreme Court arguments, and one Supreme Court ruling later, I’m finally near the finish line.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in my case on June 21, I can now fight the township’s law in federal court where property rights cases belong.
I never imagined when all this started that I would be where I am today. I felt like I haven’t had a life with this case hanging over my head.
I want to live out my retirement years in the peace and quietness of my farm. I want to enjoy the beautiful sunsets from my favorite spot high atop a hill, without having to worry that my view might include uninvited strangers tramping around my farmland.
For the past several years, I agonized over the thought of a child getting too close to big farm machinery while his or her family was off looking for a gravestone. I lost sleep wondering how to comply with the cemetery law’s requirement that I clear my property of snow and ice in the dead of winter.
But they say everything happens for a reason. I’d say my reason for going through all of this has been to help every person in this country who owns a piece of property — no matter how big or small.
People work hard and save money to buy property, only for their government to tell them how to use their property — without paying the owners. Then they can’t even get the courts to listen because of Williamson County. To me, that’s no different from robbing a bank and getting away with it because some obscure precedent lets criminal courts look the other way.
Will every property owner who brings a taking claim to federal court win? Well, that’s up to the court to decide. Maybe local governments won’t be so brazen with their property rights abuses if they know their victims can now fight fair. But just the fact that property owners can now bring their fight to federal courts makes my win a victory for all Americans.
Thanks to the Supreme Court, the country’s 34-year justice-busting nightmare is over, and we can bury Williamson County for good.
Rose Mary Knick is a PLF client and special contributor
This op-ed was originally published in The Morning Call on July 14, 2019.