Major Property Rights Case Decided at the Supreme Court
Article from Reason by Ilya Somin.
Earlier today, the Supreme Court decided to review Knick v. Township of Scott, an important property rights case. The most important issue the Court will consider is whether to overrule Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, a 1985 decision that makes it very difficult or impossible to bring takings cases in federal court. Under Williamson County, a property owner who contends that the government has taken his property and therefores owes “just compensation” under the Fifth Amendment, cannot file a case in federal court until he or she has first gotten a “final decision” from the appropriate state or local regulatory agency and has “exhausted” all possible remedies in state court. Even after all of that, it is often impossible to bring a federal claim, because a variety of procedural barriers preclude federal courts from reviewing state court decisions in cases where the case was initially brought in state court. In some cases, governments defending against takings claims even exercise their right to “remove” the case to federal court, and then manage to get the case dismissed because the property owner did not manage to first “exhaust” state court remedies (a failure caused by the defendants’ own decision to get the case removed).
Williamson County creates an egregious Catch-22 trap for property owners: before they can bring a claim in federal court, they must first go through state courts and administrative agencies. But the very act of going to state court makes it virtually impossible to later appeal the case to a federal court! This is the kind of Kafkaesque idiocy that gives the legal profession a bad name.
One might ask why it matters whether takings cases are litigated in state court or federal court. After all, both state and federal judges have to apply the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and both have to follow relevant federal court precedents. In many cases, the result will be the same, regardless of venue. But in some situations, particularly ones where precedent is unclear and the issues may be ambiguous, state courts could well be biased against property owners, because they have close connections with the state and local governments that undermined the property rights in question. This may be particularly likely in the many states where judges are elected, and are therefore part of the same political coalition as local and state government officials.
In addition, allowing review in federal court helps ensure enforcement of at least a minimal uniform floor of constitutional rights through the nation. That, after all, is one of the main purposes of having federal constitutional rights in the first place. As prominent nineteenth century Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story explained in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, a famous 1816 decision, one of the main reasons why federal courts have ultimate jurisdiction over federal constitutional issues is “the importance, and even necessity of uniformity of decisions throughout the whole United States, upon all subjects within the purview of the constitution.” Story also warned that the availability of federal judicial review is essential to prevent enforcement of constitutional rights from being being impeded by state court bias in favor of their own state governments.
Read the full story at Reason.
Image Credit: Joe Ravi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons