U.S. Supreme Court Again Hears Lackawanna Cemetery Case

January 17, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments for the second time in the case of a Scott Twp. woman challenging an ordinance that would force her to allow public access to a purported cemetery on her property. The high court’s ruling in the case of Rose Mary Knick is expected to have nationwide impact because of the underlying issue at stake, which addresses the process a land owner must utilize in challenging a government action that impacts their rights. The case stems from a 2012 township ordinance that regulates public access to private cemeteries. The township passed the ordinance after resident Robert Vail complained Knick denied him access to the grave sites of several relatives he claims are buried on a section of her 90-acre property. Knick contends there are no graves on the property. Knick initially challenged the ordinance in Lackawanna County court, but a judge dismissed the case on procedural grounds. In 2014 she filed a federal lawsuit alleging the ordinance equated to an unlawful taking of her property without compensation. A judge dismissed the case based on a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision that says a property owner cannot seek relief in federal court until they’ve filed suit in state court and have been denied compensation. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to revisit whether its 1985 ruling should stand. It first heard argument in October,when the nine-member court was short one justice due to the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Since then, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the high court. It’s not known why the justices again sought oral argument in the case. The Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents Knick, speculated it is because the justices were evenly split and need a tie-breaking vote or the court is still deciding the best legal theory to evaluate the case. The court heard argument for about one hour Wednesday. It’s not expected to rule for several months. “A win for me is a win for all Americans,” Knick said in a statement. “If the justices rule in my favor, I want everyone to know it’s not just about me and my private property. This is about opening the federal courtroom doors so all property owners can fight back when government takes their property without paying for it.” The Pacific Legal Foundation is a California-based nonprofit group that advocates for landowners rights. In a statement, J. David Breemer, a senior attorney with the foundation who argued the case, said he’s hopeful the court “will see the injustice caused by the inability of property owners to get a prompt hearing on whether the government has taken their property without compensation.” Attempts to reach the township’s attorney, Teresa Ficken Sachs of Philadelphia, for comment were unsuccessful. Contact the writer: tbesecker@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9137

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