In Property Rights Case, Justices Sharply Debate Power of Precedent

The 1985 decision, Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, said that such suits had to be brought in state court. That decision reasoned that there was no violation of the takings clause until the state or local government fails to pay just compensation after state-court litigation.

Chief Justice Roberts said the 1985 decision was wrong. “Contrary to Williamson County,” he wrote, “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.”

“A later payment of compensation may remedy the constitutional violation that occurred at the time of the taking, but that does not mean the violation never took place,” the chief justice wrote. “The violation is the only reason compensation was owed in the first place. A bank robber might give the loot back, but he still robbed the bank.”

In dissent, Justice Kagan wrote that Chief Justice Roberts misunderstood the takings clause, which she said was not violated until the government failed to pay following proceedings about how much was owed.

“Today’s decision thus overthrows the court’s long-settled view of the takings clause,” she wrote. “The majority declares, as against a mountain of precedent, that a government taking private property for public purposes must pay compensation at that moment or in advance.”

The decision in the case, Knick v. Township of Scott, No. 17-647, she wrote, “will subvert important principles of judicial federalism.”

“Today’s decision sends a flood of complex state-law issues to federal courts,” Justice Kagan wrote. “It makes federal courts a principal player in local and state land-use disputes. It betrays judicial federalism.”

But Justice Kagan reserved her harshest criticism for the majority’s attitude toward to power of precedent. “It is hard to overstate the value, in a country like ours, of stability in the law,” she wrote.

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