SCOTUS takes case of Pa. woman forced to make her land open to public because of graveyard

By Elizabeth Alt | May 14, 2018

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a property rights lawsuit filed by a Pennsylvania landowner who has a graveyard on her property, and the decision could have far-reaching implications across the country, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation - a group that is representing the landowner.

The case revolves around a 90-acre plot of land in rural eastern Pennsylvania owned by Rose Mary Knick.

When Scott Township officials found signs that the land might contain an old burial ground, they ordered Knick to grant the public unrestricted access to the property. The decision was based on a local ordinance that requires property owners to give the public access across private property to grave sites.

Knick, who lives on the property, tried to challenge the decision in state court but was rebuffed. She then tried to file suit in federal court, which refused to hear her case. The federal court found that she had to sue in state court, citing the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank.

Martin said the Williamson County decision established that plaintiffs who seek to recover damages because a government took their land must first exhaust all remedies in state court before filing suit in federal court. However, many federal courts will not review decisions when the case was decided in a state court.

“Federal courts have largely abandoned their duty of hearing constitutionally based property rights claims against local governments,” PLF attorney Christina Martin told the Pennsylvania Record.

Martin said that her firm took Knick’s case because she and her colleagues “believe that federal courts should protect everyone’s constitutional property rights.”

“The town’s ordinance that turned Ms. Knick’s private farm into a public cemetery violates the Fifth Amendment’s requirement that government must pay when it takes private property,” Martin said. 

“In Ms. Knick’s case, the town took a public easement from Ms. Knick by opening up her private property to the public. The Constitution requires that the town pay Ms. Knick for that easement.”

Martin said she is “hopeful” that the court will reverse its 1985 decision.

“The Supreme Court has made clear time and again that [a] government must pay when it takes an easement,” Martin said. 

“The only problem is that because of Williamson County the federal court refused to hear her claim. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Ms. Knick’s case and reconsider the state-litigation requirement that comes from Williamson County. 

"We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will guarantee everyone’s right to enforce their constitutional property rights in federal court, just like they can enforce any other constitutional right in federal court.”

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