Supreme Court overturns precedent, backs property-rights suits

A divided U.S. Supreme Court made it easier for landowners to sue for compensation when a government regulation reduces the value of their property, overturning a decades-old precedent that had limited lawsuits in federal court.

Voting 5-4 along ideological lines, the court said Friday that property owners could go straight to a federal judge without first seeking compensation through state proceedings. The decision reversed a 1985 Supreme Court ruling, prompting a sharp dissent from the court’s liberal wing.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the 1985 ruling placed an “unjustifiable burden” on property owners, preventing many of them from ever reaching federal court. That’s because resolution of a state court proceeding generally precludes any federal lawsuit over the constitutional ban on government taking of private property without “just compensation,” Roberts said.

“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 ruling is a victory for Rose Mary Knick, a Pennsylvania woman whose rural property includes a small family graveyard. She was suing over a local ordinance that requires all cemeteries to be kept open to the public during daylight hours.

Dissenting Justice Elena Kagan said the decision would “channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into federal courts.”

She said the ruling “transgresses all usual principles of stare decisis,” the practice under which the court usually leaves its precedents intact.

The same conservative majority in May overturned a ruling that had let states be sued in the courts of other states. At the time, dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer said the ruling “can only cause one to wonder which cases the court will overrule next.”

Kagan picked up on that point in Friday’s case.

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

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