483 U. S. 143
June 22, 1987
One insurance company was accused of defrauding another in the year 1978. A RICO action was filed against the accused company in 1981. The question was how long the RICO statute of limitations lasted. Usually, when a federal law had no limitation, one was borrowed from a closely analogous state law. This approach can be difficult when it’s hard to determine the most closely analogous state law though.
O’Connor wrote for an 8-1 Court, and ruled that a nationally uniform limitation was needed for RICO, due to the complexity of the cases, and the common tendency for conspiracies to cross state lines. Thus, O’Connor turned away from state laws entirely in favor of federal laws. The Court found the Clayton Act to be a very close parallel to RICO – indeed, legislative history confirmed that it served as the basic framework and model when RICO was written. Thus, its four year statute of limitations was adopted by the Court. Because 1981 was less than four years after 1978, the suit could go forward.
Scalia concurred in judgment, but only because he didn’t think there was any statute of limitation at all due to the lack of a good state law analogy to RICO. Scalia carefully considered several musty old cases from the 1820s and 1830s, and concluded that the concept of borrowing limitations from state laws was originally grounded in the concept of preemption. It was thought that all state law on the subject was applicable unless preempted by federal law. Under this paradigm, it made no sense to borrow from another federal law. Worse yet, the Court had absolutely no judicial authority to abandon the traditional state law rule when it went “prowling hungrily through the Statutes at Large for an appetizing federal limitations period, and pouncing.” Congress could neither have expected nor intended any such thing.
Another Scalia classic. What makes him a great Justice is his willingness to question the assumptions that all the other Justices make. When other Justices look solely at the branches, he examines the roots. There’s no real answer for this particular dissent. O’Connor and the majority simply preferred to blindly adhere to recent tradition out of convenience. Shame.