The Supreme Court’s liberal and conservative members clashed again Friday on respecting the court’s precedents, this time about when a property owner aggrieved by a local government’s restriction on her land can go to federal court.
The issue has been important to the conservative legal establishment and its belief that a 1985 ruling, which the court overturned Friday on a 5-to-4 vote, left property owners without options in federal court if claims in state proceedings are unsatisfactory.
But 42 pages of back-and-forth between conservative Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and liberal Justice Elena Kagan seemed more inspired by the liberals’ fear that the court’s increasingly conservative majority is on a campaign to remake the court’s precedents.
“Under cover of overruling ‘only’ a single decision, today’s opinion smashes a hundred-plus years of legal rulings to smithereens,” Kagan wrote.
She noted that just last month, when the court overturned another long-standing precedent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in his dissent, “Today’s decision can only cause one to wonder which cases the court will overrule next.”
Kagan quipped: “Well, that didn’t take long. Now one may wonder yet again.”
Roberts was sensitive enough to what he, in the opinion, called Kagan’s “extreme assertions” that the chief justice specifically addressed them while announcing the decision from the bench.
He said the court’s majority decided quickly that the 1985 decision, Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, was incorrectly decided. But the justices still had to wrestle with the doctrine of stare decisis, which calls for them generally to honor precedent.
Roberts noted that in two decisions announced this week, the court did just that.
“Today,” he said, “the balance tips in favor of dispensing with Williamson County.”
The case’s reasoning was not just wrong but “exceptionally ill founded,” Roberts wrote, and had been criticized for years “from Justices of this Court and many respected commentators.”
The decision was a victory for Rose Mary Knick, who owns 90 acres of rural property north of Scranton, Pa. There’s a dispute about whether a small graveyard sits on the property; the township of Scott has an ordinance that says all cemeteries must be open to the public during daylight hours.
Knick felt that would be a taking of her property and filed a federal lawsuit. She said it violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, which says that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
The federal court cited Williamson and said she could not bring the suit without going through state proceedings first. And under a subsequent Supreme Court ruling, a federal court generally must defer to a state court’s resolution of a claim for just compensation.
“The takings plaintiff thus finds himself in a Catch-22: He cannot go to federal court without going to state court first; but if he goes to state court and loses, his claim will be barred in federal court,” Roberts wrote. “The federal claim dies aborning.”
The case was first heard in early October and apparently split the court 4 to 4. It was reargued in January after Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the court, and he joined the court’s other conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch — in the majority with Roberts.
“The court’s decision sends a message that constitutionally based property rights deserve federal protection just like other rights,” said J. David Breemer, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented Knick.
Kagan said the proper authority to correct any Catch-22 problem is Congress, which has considered such matters but has not acted.
Kagan has become the court’s most ardent supporter of stare decisis, likely because she fears the court’s increasing conservative majority might do away with other precedents important to liberals. She was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Breyer.
Kagan also strenuously dissented last term when the court overturned a 40-year-old precedent regarding fees paid to public employee unions. That case was cited by Roberts in Friday’s opinion.
“If that is the way the majority means to proceed — relying on one subversion of stare decisis to support another — we may as well not have principles about precedents at all,” she wrote.
The case is Knick v. Township of Scott.
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.