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Supreme Court Issues Major Property Rights Decision That Helps RLUIPA Plaintiffs

This morning the Supreme Court issued a major property/civil rights decision in Knick v. Township of Scott.  In a 5-4 decision, the Court overruled its 1985 decision in Williamson County v. Hamilton Bank. The Williamson County decision adopted a rule which required property owners to exhaust all state remedies before they could ask a federal court to decide whether the government had violated their Fifth Amendment rights by taking their property without just compensation. Even though the Williamson County rule was adopted in the unique context of Fifth Amendment takings claims, some federal courts have wrongly applied it to land use cases involving First Amendment rights and even the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). As a result of Williamson County, many plaintiffs with meritorious federal claims nevertheless had their claims thrown out of federal court.

At the first oral argument in Knick, only eight justices were on the Court as Justice Kavanaugh had not yet taken the bench, so many assumed that the Court scheduled another argument because it was split 4-4. In hindsight, that assumption was validated this morning when the Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision to throw out Williamson County. Justice Kavanaugh joined the majority including Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, concluded that “[c]ontrary to Williamson County, a property owner has a claim for a violation of the Takings Clause as soon as a government takes his property for public use without paying for it. The Clause provides: ‘[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.’ It does not say: ‘Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without an available procedure that will result in compensation.’

For far too long, the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment was, in the words of the Court, relegated “‘to the status of a poor relation’ among the provisions of the Bill of Rights.” Today’s decision changes that by allowing plaintiffs the ability to assert their Fifth Amendment takings claim in federal court just as they would any other constitutional claim.

Justice Kagan’s dissenting opinion, which was joined by the remaining Justices, highlighted perhaps an even more important take-away–namely, how and when the Court can overrule its prior decisions. As the majority put it, “fidelity to the Takings Clause and our cases construing it requires overruling Williamson County and restoring takings claims to the full-fledged constitutional status the Framers envisioned when they included the Clause among the other protections in the Bill of Rights.” The question now is what other prior Supreme Court decisions will be reexamined for fidelity to the Constitution they purport to interpret.

For now, we are just delighted that Williamson County will no longer be able to stalk our religious land use cases in federal court.

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