Thanks to the United States Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Pennsylvania property owner Rose Mary Knick, property rights are now on the same footing as the other constitutionally-guaranteed rights in the eyes of federal courts.
Rose Mary Knick had been the rightful owner of 90 acres of Pennsylvania farmland since 1970, but in the late 2000’s, documentation was discovered suggesting that Knick’s land contained a cemetery and burial site. In 2012, the Scott Township, Pennsylvania, government passed an ordinance that required public access to all cemeteries within its jurisdiction. A township official eventually entered Knick’s land without her permission and determined portions of the land once served as a burial ground and cemetery. As a result, the public was free to access Knick’s private property for the purpose of reaching the cemetery. Knick refused to comply.
Knick argued that the government violated the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, also known as the “Takings Clause.” The Takings Clause requires private citizens to be compensated when the government takes their property. First, Knick turned to the state courts, but was denied when one court refused to hear the case, while another agreed that Knick’s complaint could not be heard. Knick then appealed to the federal courts, who also dismissed her case, citing a previous court decision from 1985, and telling Knick that she first needed to have her case heard at the state level. The situation put Rose Mary Knick in a bit of a pickle.
Knick petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case, and they accepted. The Court heard oral arguments in October of 2018 (with only 8 Justices, rather than the usual 9, due to the vacancy left by Justice Anthony Kennedy), but then requested oral arguments to be given again just a month later. Legal experts speculated that the request was made because the Justices were deadlocked, and newly-admitted Justice Brett Kavanaugh would need to hear the case and break the tie.
On June 21, 2019, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Knick. The Court overruled the previous decision from 1985 and found that Knick’s rights had been violated when the lower courts refused to hear her case. The victory for Knick – and subsequently, other property owners – was procedural, rather than substantive. This means that the Court did not actually rule on the issue of Scott Township taking Rose Mary Knick’s property without compensation. Rather, the Court ruled that Knick’s rights had been violated because she was not being properly heard by the American legal system. The case was then remanded for a lower court to properly determine if Knick’s Fifth Amendment rights had been violated. Ultimately, the Court determined that Knick’s case (and others like it) may be heard in federal court so that justice can be done.