Winning the battle against Williamson County

June 25, 2019 | By JAMES BURLING
Ms. Knick goes to Washington

True enemies are most often the stuff of epic tales and movies. But in real life, our enemies are subtler; many times, they’re unknown to most. For decades, one of PLF’s enemies has been a legal precedent called Williamson County. And during this Supreme Court session, PLF Senior Attorney Dave Breemer finally defeated it.

This saga began in 1985 when the Supreme Court took up Williamson County v. Hamilton Bank. The case involved a landowner who sued the county after zoning restrictions made it impossible for him to feasibly use his property. The Supreme Court took the case to decide whether a regulation can be so onerous that it “takes” land—meaning that the government must pay the landowner under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. But after the Court took up the case, it realized it didn’t know what to do with it. So the Court punted and made up a new legal doctrine that stated landowners cannot challenge regulations as takings unless and until they first try the case out in a state court.

Since that 1985 decision, landowners have been blockaded from filing property rights claims in federal court. What’s more, in a later 2005 decision, San Remo Hotel v. San Francisco, the Court piled on with a legal catch-22, saying that if a landowner files a lawsuit first in state court, as instructed in Williamson County, it’s too late to file in federal court. But several of the justices expressed misgivings about this doctrine and wrote that it might be time to revisit Williamson County and overturn it if the right case came along.

Since that 2005 decision, Pacific Legal Foundation attorneys, led by Dave Breemer, have tried nearly a dozen times to bring that right case before the Court. It hasn’t been easy—but no epic battle is. The Supreme Court takes only one to two percent of the cases brought before it. Over the years we’ve had countless landowners come to PLF looking for some solution to their problems with Williamson County.

PLF, and Dave personally, heard from so many people who were shut out of the federal courts after a state or local agency destroyed their property rights through excessive regulations, permit denials, or even just the refusal to act on permit applications. PLF and Dave were happy to take these cases and fight alongside our clients. But time after time, the federal courts refused to hear a case after the state courts would or could provide no relief. All because of Williamson County.

Enter Rose Knick from rural Pennsylvania.

When Scott Township in Pennsylvania decided to pass an ordinance allowing people to trespass on Rose’s land, they likely didn’t know it would wind up at the Supreme Court. And when PLF took Rose’s case and she met Dave—her self-proclaimed “guardian angel”—little did she know that together they would be the catalyst for overturning over three decades of bad law.

But finally, with a 5-4 decision in Knick v. Township of Scott on June 21, 2019, Rose, Dave, PLF, and thousands of property owners across the country had vindication.

It’s about time. For decades, people have been able to go to federal court when a state or local government deprives them of any constitutional right, except one—the right to enjoy and use private property.

But that is the past. As Justice Roberts put it in the Knick opinion, the Court has restored “takings claims to the full-fledged constitutional status the Framers envisioned when they included the Clause among the other protections in the Bill of Rights.” Knick will give property owners the same choice of forum for federal takings claims that state and local governments have always had in defending those claims: state or federal court.

PLF attorneys—led by Dave—have filed more petitions to the Court on this issue than anyone else combined. We have spent countless hours teeing this issue up for the Court. We have strategized, mooted, written articles, briefed, and given speeches on this issue for decades.

And now, together with quiet, humble Rose Knick, we’re victorious.

Our job is far from over, though. We will defend this victory and make sure that state and local regulators across the nation, as well as federal courts, take it seriously. If a landowner thinks their property is taken like Rose did, that landowner can now go straight to federal court. This victory will put teeth on the Takings Clause because local and state governments can no longer be assured that their transgressions will be buried by an overly friendly local court system.

And most importantly for Rose, her case will now be heard by a federal court. Scott Township will have to think very hard about what it is doing to her.

Not every epic tale has a happy ending. But every so often, those truly special victories come along and all those battle scars and years fighting are made worth it. All of us at PLF are grateful to the dedicated people like Dave Breemer and all our attorneys who fight despicable laws like Williamson County.

Add Knick to the victory column for property rights.

Write “defeated” next to Williamson County.