A divided Supreme Court overruled 34 years of precedent Friday as it sided with a woman who wanted to sue in federal court over a Pennsylvania town taking her land for public use.
The 5-4 ruling left the court’s liberal wing questioning which case the court’s majority might overturn next.
The lower courts ruled against the woman, citing a 1985 Supreme Court case that said an individual wishing to challenge a property taking must first sue in state court before filing a federal action.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., joined by the four other Republican-appointed justices, said the earlier ruling was misguided because later caselaw required a state court ruling over property compensation to restrict a federal court from weighing in.
“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. The federal claim dies aborning,” Justice Roberts wrote.
The case involved Rose Mary Knick, whose 90-acre farm has a small graveyard in one area. The township of Scott said she was violating a local ordinance by not keeping the cemetery open and accessible to the public during the day.
“All I’ve ever wanted was to be able to enjoy my farm in peace and quiet. Now I can actually hold the township accountable for taking my private property in federal court,” Ms. Knick said.
The court’s four Democratic-appointed justices disagreed with the ruling, saying the high court should have left the decades-old precedent intact.
Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Stephen G. Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissented, recalling that the court’s majority overturned 40 years of precedent last month in another case involving a lawsuit over a tax audit.
She noted Justice Breyer dissented at the time, asking which cases the court’s five-member majority would overturn next.
“Well, that didn’t take long. Now one may wonder yet again,” Justice Kagan said in her dissent Friday.
The question of overturning precedent — mainly the court’s 1973 landmark ruling Roe v. Wade, which recognized a national right to abortion — has been making headlines as red states have been passing increasingly restrictive abortion laws, leading some to fear the high court may soon review its earlier decision.