West Virginia v. United States

479 U. S. 305

January 13, 1987

In 1972, a devastating flood ravaged the mountainous coal country of southern West Virginia. Under the Disaster Relief Act (DRA), the federal government stepped in to help during the aftermath, but billed West Virginia for some of the costs, as provided by the law. For several years, West Virginia neglected to pay these costs, until finally the US government got a judgment against the state in court. A hot dispute emerged afterward regarding whether West Virginia would have to pay interest that had accrued on the costs prior to the judicial judgment.

Marshall wrote for a unanimous Court, ruling that West Virginia had to pay the prejudgment interest. Precedent made clear that, as a general rule, state could be held liable by the federal government for prejudgment interest. Nonetheless, precedent also allowed for inquiry into the interests of both parties before applying that general rule. Marshall argued that the United States had a good case, because the text of the DRA clearly supported its right to bill West Virginia. In contrast, West Virginia had a weak case. West Virginia law exempted the state from having to pay interest, but that rule was due to the state’s sovereign immunity. Against the United States, West Virginia had no sovereign immunity, since the entire nation is superior to the state.

Marshall’s reasoning makes sense I guess. It would have been interesting to have read a dissent though. While the law may have been on its side, I think it was pretty tacky of the United States to demand prejudgment interest from a state that had been devastated by such tragedy. In the interest of mercy and compassion, the federal government should have let it go.

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