Supreme Court bolsters rights for developers and property owners in California and elsewhere

The high court said property rights stand on the same footing as other rights protected by the Constitution.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority gave a major boost to property rights Friday, ruling that developers and landowners may go directly to federal court and seek compensation for a “taking” of their property.

The 5-4 decision overturned a 1985 precedent that said property owners may not sue in federal court if their development plans were blocked until they had sought and been denied compensation from local officials or a state agency. This process often stretched over many years, effectively blocking a development, according to its critics.

The decision is likely to have its greatest impact in California, even though it began with a Pennsylvania woman’s complaint that people were walking across her property to visit a burial site.


California has especially strict regulations for development in its cities and along the coast, and property owners have repeatedly claimed these regulations and other zoning rules have the effect of “taking” their property.

Led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the high court said property rights stand on the same footing as other rights protected by the Constitution. He pointed to the 5th Amendment, which says “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Giving property owners a right to sue in federal court is a crucial step to “restoring taking claims to the full-fledged constitutional status the framers envisioned when they included the clause among the other protections in the Bill of Rights,” Roberts said in Knick vs. Township of Scott, Pa.

The decision is “one of most important property-rights cases in over 30 years,” said Los Angeles attorney Paul Beard II.

“For years, federal ‘takings’ plaintiffs have effectively and inexplicably been denied access to the federal courts,” Beard said. “As of today, the federal courthouse doors are open. We should see a steady stream of new claims against laws and regulations that deprive or significantly impair an individual’s or business’ property interests.”

Among other things, the decision could give property owners greater power to challenge local bans against fracking to extract oil and gas, he said.

Lawyers for the Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented Rose Knick, the Pennsylvania woman, called it a “landmark victory for property rights.”

“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,” said attorney Dave Breemer. “The court’s decision sends a message that constitutionally based property rights deserve federal protection just like other rights.”

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh cast the deciding vote. The case was first argued on Oct. 3, when Kavanaugh’s nomination was before the Senate. He was confirmed a week later, and the court later announced it would rehear the Knick case in January, presumably because the justices were split 4-4.

The majority also included Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch.

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan faulted the court for overturning a long-standing precedent. She said the ruling will “channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into federal courts.”

She said the 1985 case, Williamson County vs. Hamilton Bank, arose when a local planning commission rejected a property owner’s development plan. She said the high court was right then to rule that a constitutional violation arose only when the owner was denied “just compensation” by the government.

“Today’s decision overthrows the court’s long-settled view of the takings clause. … Under the cover of overruling only a single decision, [it] smashes a hundred-plus years of legal rulings to smithereens,” she wrote. The ruling “makes federal courts a principal player in local and state land-use disputes.”

She closed with a warning of what’s ahead. She noted that last month, the court had overturned another long-standing precedent, prompting Justice Stephen G. Breyer “to wonder which cases the court will overrule next.”

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

Joining her dissent were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Breyer.

Terry Sachs, a Philadelphia lawyer who defended Scott Township near Scranton, said she was disappointed by the ruling but still hoped to prevail.

“For hundreds of years, it has been the law in Pennsylvania and many other states that cemetery property is different — that a person or corporation who acquires land on which grave sites have been consecrated may not simply pave them over or forbid bereaved family from visiting,” Sachs said. “We are confident that no court — federal or state — would find it unconstitutional to hold the plaintiff to these responsibilities.”