Supreme Court hands victory to Pennsylvania woman in cemetery dispute

Jessica Gresko
Associated Press
In this Sept. 21, 2018 file photo, Pennsylvania resident Rose Mary Knick stands next to a private property sign on her farmland in Lackawanna County's Scott Township. The Supreme Court is siding with Knick in a case that gives citizens another avenue to pursue claims when they believe states and local governments have harmed their property rights. The high court ruled Friday in the case. (AP Photo/Jessica Gresko)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Friday to allow people to sue in federal court when they believe states and local governments have harmed their property rights, handing a victory to a Pennsylvania woman fighting her town over a cemetery ordinance.

The high court ruled 5-4 along ideological lines in favor of Rose Mary Knick. She tried to bring a lawsuit in federal court after her town passed an ordinance that requires anyone with a cemetery on their land to open it to the public during the day.

A town official found several grave markers on Knick’s farmland in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna County, but she disputes whether there’s actually a small, family cemetery on her 90-acre property .

Regardless, Knick argued that in adopting the ordinance in 2012 and applying it to her, local officials were in essence taking her property and opening it to the public without paying her for it.

A federal court threw out Knick’s case, ruling she had to go to state court first. But after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Knick will be able to pursue her case in federal court.

Property owners with complaints like Knick’s would often prefer to pursue their cases in federal court, Knick’s lawyers have said, because they may view them as more neutral or objective than state courts, which are sometimes seen as being influenced by local politics.

Local governments previously had the power to take a case like Knick’s that was filed in state court and move it to federal court, but citizens didn’t have the option to begin their cases in federal court.

A 1985 Supreme Court decision had effectively barred people with property rights claims like Knick’s from going to federal court. The Supreme Court on Friday overruled that decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for himself and his four conservative colleagues that it was “not just wrong” but its reasoning was “exceptionally ill founded.”

The court’s ruling means citizens will now have a choice about whether to go to state or federal courts.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent for herself and her liberal colleagues that the decision “smashes a hundred-plus years of legal rulings to smithereens.” And she said the decision’s consequence will be to “channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into federal courts.”

Knick’s attorney, J. David Breemer, said before the decision that a ruling in Knick’s favor would lead to faster resolutions in similar cases.

“This decision is a very long time coming for Rose and other property owners who have had federal courtroom doors slammed shut in their faces whenever they seek compensation for a governmental taking of their private property,” Breemer said in a statement.

Knick’s town, Scott Township, said in a statement it was disappointed with the ruling but that it believes it will ultimately win when the case goes back to federal court.

In her dissent, Kagan took issue with her colleagues’ reasons for overruling a prior case, and she referenced a dissenting opinion written by her liberal colleague Stephen Breyer last month in another case where the court split along ideological lines in overturning a precedent. Breyer wrote that decision “can only cause one to wonder which cases the Court will overrule next.”

“Well, that didn’t take long. Now one may wonder yet again,” Kagan wrote.

The justices have 12 cases remaining to issue decisions in by the end of the month. Two offer opportunities to overrule past cases.

The case is Knick v. Township of Scott, 17-647.