Sun Oil Co. v. Wortman

486 U. S. 717

June 15, 1988

Landowners who leased property to a gas company were seeking additional interest on royalties due to them. They brought suit in Kansas state court, even though they were variously from Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Kansas had a longer statute of limitations than those states. The gas company charged that Kansas had no business applying their own statute of limitations under the Full Faith and Credit clause, and also that Kansas had not properly followed the interest rate laws from TX, OK, and LA.

The Court ruled unanimously that Kansas could apply its own statute of limitations, and ruled 6-2 that the Kansas courts had adequately interpreted the interest laws of TX, OK, and LA (Kennedy did not participate). Scalia started out by showing how statutes of limitations had always been seen as procedural rules which could be used without violating the Full Faith and Credit clause. International law (which was used to interpret the clause in the early days) had allowed the forum state to use its own limitations statutes for centuries, and nothing could overthrow the force of this history. A small number of dissonant cases from the Erie line were distinguished.

Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, sharply disagreed with Scalia’s reasoning. He hated majority’s undertones of originalism, bright lines between substantive and procedural rules, and recourse to history. Instead, Brennan would look at whether using the forum state’s limitations statute was arbitrary or fundamentally unfair. Upon reviewing the case’s facts, and finding no fundamental unfairness, Brennan concluded that Kansas could use its own statute of limitations.

On the issue of the interest rate laws of the other states, Scalia said the Full Faith and Credit clause was not breached unless the forum state’s interpretation was blatantly incorrect. Although Kansas allegedly misinterpreted laws from TX, OK, and LA, there were minimally plausible arguments to be made for the odd interpretations advanced by Kansas.

O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist, would have none of this. The laws of TX, OK, and LA were pretty clear, and Kansas did an obviously slipshod job of trying to get around them. She closed her opinion with this hilarious summation of what the Kansas courts essentially did: “Faced with the constitutional obligation to apply the substantive law of another State, a court that does not like that law apparently need take only two steps in order to avoid applying it. First, invent a legal theory so novel or strange that the other State has never had an opportunity to reject it; then, on the basis of nothing but unsupported speculation, “predict” that the other State would adopt that theory if it had the chance.”

This case sure has a number of interesting storylines. First, it’s great to see Brennan whine in dissent that the majority is using originalism. While he may hate historical practice, it’s surely a better standard than his solution of unelected Justices randomly deciding what procedures are “fundamentally unfair.” Then there’s O’Connor, who (along with Rehnquist) is the only Justice with the guts to say that the Kansas courts were on an abusive and lawless power trip. It’s a shame Scalia didn’t have the courage to admit this (he’s disappointed several times in recent cases).

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