Supreme Court Hears Case About Cemetery-Access Law

By Andrew Koch
United States Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C. (Unsplash)

We’ve all heard a lot about the Supreme Court in the past few months. But genealogists have a new reason to pay attention to SCOTUS news. On Oct. 3, 2018 the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case related to whether genealogists can access privately held cemeteries. The case, Knick v. Township of Scott, involves a landowner who doesn’t want to comply with a local cemetery-access law.

In 2008, genealogist Robert Vail discovered where his ancestor, Micah Vail, was buried. As it turned out, the tombstone now lies on land that resident Rose Mary Knick has owned since 1970. Vail told The Philadelphia Inquirer he wants to visit the grave to maintain the monuments and honor his ancestor. He said he believes at least a half-dozen other relatives (including a Revolutionary War veteran) are buried there as well.

Knick denies a cemetery lies on her 90-acre property, but believes visitors (or the government) should pay to visit her property if one exists. Under an ordinance in Scott Township, Pennsylvania, landowners must provide daytime access to cemeteries on private land or else face a fine. But Knick, not wanting to open her private property to the public, has refused.

Knick sued Scott Township in 2013. Her lawyers have argued the ordinance violates her Fifth Amendment right to “just compensation” for public use of her land. But the court of common pleas dismissed her case, and the US district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that dismissal.

The Supreme Court generally hears only cases that have wider judicial or constitutional impact. As a result, the Court won’t directly rule on whether Vail and others should be able to access the cemetery. Instead, the Court will weigh in on a procedural matter: whether a pre-existing court decision should affect how landowners like Knick file complaints about federal taking claims. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank (1985), landowners suing about federal land seizures have to go through the state courts before filing in federal courts.

Because of Williamson, Knick wasn’t able to file suit in federal court as she would have preferred. The Supreme Court would have to overturn part of the Williamson decision to allow her to do so. The Court will likely issue its ruling in June 2019. If the Court rules in her favor, Knick could pursue the case further.

Cemetery-access laws vary by state, county and locality, and they impact who and when genealogists can visit gravesites on private land. Pennsylvania, for example, mandates that property owners grant individuals “reasonable ingress and egress to a burial plot.” (So even if a court strikes down the Scott Township ordinance, Knick may still have to comply with this state law.) Visit your local government’s or state legislature’s website to find what laws apply to your area.