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U.S. Supreme Court hearing private property rights case

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WASHINGTON – Oct. 4, 2018 – Six years after Scott Twp., Pa., said Rose Mary Knick must allow the public to visit a purported cemetery on her property, the U.S. Supreme Court heard her grievances.

The high court on Wednesday listened to oral arguments related to Knick’s longstanding dispute with the township over its 2012 ordinance regulating public access to cemeteries on private property.

In a case with the potential to impact the rights of landowners nationwide, her lawyer argued current law requiring people like Knick to exhaust state-court remedies before pursuing property rights claims in federal court essentially treats them as second-class citizens.

“The problem here, the question here, is whether Ms. Knick must go to the state court with her federal claims,” attorney David Breemer of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group that represents the Scott Twp. woman, told the justices, according the online hearing transcript. “She can’t even get in through the (federal) courthouse door.”

The township passed its ordinance after resident Robert Vail complained that Knick refused to let him visit the gravesites of several of his ancestors, including a Revolutionary War veteran, that he contends are buried on a section of her property on Country Club Road.

Knick, who lives alone on the 90-acre property that has been in her family since 1970, disputes there are any graves there.

In deciding in March to hear her appeal, the high court agreed to revisit its ruling in a 1985 case that property owners who believe a local government has violated their property rights cannot seek relief in federal court until after they have filed suit in state court and had their claims adjudicated there.

Critics of the 1985 decision have pointed to Knick’s case as an example of how it places unreasonable burden on property owners as she has bounced between state and federal courts for years without getting what Breemer described as “an up or down ruling” on the constitutionality of the township ordinance.

Knick initially filed a lawsuit challenging the ordinance in Lackawanna County Court in 2013, but it was dismissed on procedural grounds.

In 2014, she filed a federal lawsuit alleging the township’s ordinance equated to a taking of her land without compensating her for it. A judge dismissed the case in 2016, finding the suit was premature based on the 1985 Supreme Court decision. The dismissal was subsequently upheld by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, prompting the appeal to the high court.

In his argument to the justices, Breemer said requiring Knick to pursue her claim against the township in state court was “incompatible with the nature of her claim.”

“Her claim is not based on the government’s failure to compensate,” he said. “It’s based on the township’s failure to recognize that the imposition of an access easement is a Fifth Amendment taking that triggers a compensation requirement.”

Philadelphia attorney Teresa Ficken Sachs, who argued on behalf of Scott Twp., told the justices the decision the court made in 1985 was correct then and is still correct now.

What the court found in that case is that a property owner cannot come to federal court claiming that their constitutional right to just compensation has been violated “when the state provides a reasonable, certain and adequate means to obtain just compensation,” Sachs said.

Several of the justices seemed sympathetic to Knick’s arguments.

Justice Samuel Alito asked Sachs whether Knick is entitled to compensation from the township. When Sachs replied that is for the state to decide through a procedure that has been place for 300 years, the justice pressed harder.

“You are the state. You represent the township. The township is part of the state. So what is before us here is the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Alito said. “Does the township owe her any money – yes or no? I don’t see how you cannot have an answer to that question.”

As she stood next to Breemer outside the Supreme Court after the hearing, Knick said at a brief news conference that the case was not just about her but about all Americans and their property rights. She does not want what happened to her to happen to anyone else, she said.

Although she “never dreamed in a million years” that her case would go before the Supreme Court, she said she also didn’t think the township “would be this ridiculous.”

“I think they should read the Constitution and pay attention to people’s rights – that’s what I think,” Knick said.

© 2018 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.), David Singleton. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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