Zombies in the graveyard! Knick v. Township of Scott rises from the dead

Reargument ordered in Knick v. Township of Scott

I wrote a post last Wednesday (on Halloween) all about the  spooky metaphysics of deciding when a graveyard taking comes into existence and predicting a 4:4 split in Knick v. Township of Scott. The post was scheduled to go live at our usual time, Monday morning at 9am. However, on Friday the Court restored Knick to the calendar for reargument and directed the parties to file additional briefing. This order basically confirms our prediction that the case was a 4:4 split, although it is possible that some of the justices were genuinely undecided and thought additional argument and briefing could clarify matters.

The reargument order calls for briefing on the Petitioner’s argument in footnote 14 of their brief that there is a key distinction between actions of the responsible government entity at the time of the taking and a compensation order (or denial thereof) by a state court under an inverse condemnation action. Petitioner argues that her takings claim is ripe as soon as the Township required she dedicate a public easement without offering compensation.

I strikes me that the call for 10 additional pages of briefing is just papering over the current 4:4 split that presumably Justice Kavanaugh will resolve when the case is reargued.

The original post follows:

Just in time for Halloween

In Knick v. Township of Scott, the Supreme Court waded into the somewhat metaphysical question of when exactly a takings claim against a state comes into being and the important practical question of where such cases can and should be litigated. This case was argued on October 3rd, but we thought it was perfect for a Halloween themed post.

The Williamson County Catch-22

As the Knick case itself illustrates, plaintiffs who would prefer to take their takings cases to federal court can easily fall into in a Catch-22 situation. Petitioner Rose Mary Knick argues that a local cemetery ordinance compelling her to allow the public daytime access to a grave site on her property amounts to a Fifth Amendment taking unless compensation is forthcoming. The Catch-22 arises because under the 1985 precedent of Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, Knick cannot pursue her federal Section 1983 claim until she has gone through the Pennsylvania procedure for seeking just compensation and been denied. However, because courts since Williamson County have applied issue preclusion to prevent unsuccessful state plaintiffs re-litigating the same question in federal court, once she loses in a Pennsylvania state court, she will no longer have access to federal court.

Ghost in the machine?

Our predictive models suggest that Chief Justice Roberts (75%), Justice Gorsuch (94%) and Justice Alito (67%) are solidly in the petitioner’s camp.

Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, Predictions based on SCOTUS Oral Argument

It seemed clear at oral argument that the Chief could see the merits of both sides and was concerned about  “the letters that we’re going to get from district court judges around the country who are not going to be very happy learning that they now have to adjudicate state inverse condemnation actions, which can be fairly elaborate.”

The model is understated in the case of Alito. True, Alito engaged with both sides of the argument, but his exchanges with Petitioner were almost entirely in the form of “That’s a good argument, but wouldn’t it be even better if you said it like this?” For example, about 10 minutes into the argument, Alito cut off Justice Kagan to say the following:

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Let me see if I understand your claim, because a little — some of the questions and the discussion up to this point is a bit confusing to me. I thought your claim was that there is a violation of the takings clause and you can, therefore, bring a suit under 1983 when the state does something that constitutes a taking but at the same time says we’re not paying you anything for this. Now it’s not a question of when they would have to pay once they’ve admitted that there’s a taking, but when they do something that constitutes a taking, and they say, no, this isn’t a taking at all, and, therefore, you’re getting zero, which I understand to be your claim here, then you can go directly to federal court and bring an action under 1983. And to require you to go to state court before you do that is essentially to require you to exhaust state remedies before you can bring a 1983 claim, which is never required under 1983.

I thought that that was your argument.

J. David Breemer for the Petitioner could only agree.

Our predictive model counts only two clear votes for the Respondent, Justice Sotomayor (85%) and Justice Kagan (64%). However, even though our model suggests Justices Ginsburg and Breyer are leaning slightly in favor of the Petitioner, a vote for the Respondent seems just as likely. Based on his comments at oral argument, Breyer seems likely to vote for the Respondent and will leave Williamson County intact, but he will soften the effect of issue preclusion that creates the Catch-22.

The other federalism

Conservative justices sometimes care deeply about federalism and state sovereignty, but not so much when it comes to the authority of state courts to decide issues of state law. One of the striking things about the oral argument in Knick v. Township of Scott was that only Justice Sotomayor addressed the Petitioner’s most likely motivation for trying to keep her case in federal court.

Knick denies that there is a grave site located on her property; but she argues that even if there is, she loses an important property right if the state can compel her to grant public access during daylight hours. Assuming that the grave site exists (why take the case to the Supreme Court if it doesn’t?), one of the key questions on the merits of this takings claim will be to what extent Pennsylvania property law had always allowed for limited public access in a case like this. Sotomayor raised the question of whether the restriction was inherent in the property prior to the ordinance, describing it as the “whole issue.” She may have also been thinking that the real point of framing a case like this as a Section 1983 action is not to just to vindicate a federal constitutional right, it is to make the federal courts the final arbiters of Pennsylvania state property law.

The looming specter of a rehearing

By unwritten tradition, justices do not vote in cases for which they were not present at oral argument, and so Justice Kavanaugh should not break the 4:4 tie we predict. However, there is precedent for cases to be re-argued, particularly when otherwise the case is likely to split 4:4. But other cases in the past have simply been handed down with an even split by the original makeup of the Court. If Knick is reargued, and Kavanaugh has the deciding vote, judging by the apparent ideological split of the case in the first hearing, and the similarity between Kavanaugh’s and the other conservatives’ behavior at oral argument in the few cases he has heard so far, that could turn the outcome into a 5:4 decision for Petitioner Knick.

Knick v. Township of Scott prediction: 4:4

For Petitioner Knick: Gorsuch, Roberts, Alito, Thomas

For Respondent Township of Scott: Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer

Most likely to switch: Breyer and Roberts