487 U. S. 131
June 22, 1988
Wisconsin law said that any suit against government officials in state court had to wait until a notice process was gone through first. The plaintiff had 120 to describe the injury and damages sought to the officials, then the officials had 120 days to make it right, and then there were six months to file charges. A victim of police beating who wanted to bring a 1983 case in state court said that this law was pre-empted by 1983 itself. The state responded that it was just a state procedural rule that did not affect the principal substance of 1983.
The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the Wisconsin law could not stop 1983 suits. Brennan said that the law frustrated several purposes and goals of 1983. It required a sort of state exhaustion first, by requiring the state to have an opportunity to correct the complaint prior to a suit. It acted as a too-short statute of limitations, by effectively giving victims only four months to initiate the action. And it was too deferential to the interests of state officials, giving them a kind of extended notice that no other potential defendants could receive. That the law only applied to state court suits did not matter to Brennan, because the outcome of a 1983 suit should not turn on whether it was filed in state or federal court – indeed, for there to be such a difference in notice requirements went against Erie principles.
White concurred to note that the Court had recently established the definitive statute of limitations for 1983 suits, and that the Wisconsin law, with an effective four month limit, violated it. O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist, dissented. Invoking nebulous purposes or goals of 1983 was not enough – there had to be some definitive facet of 1983 violated by the Wisconsin law, and none existed. Because litigants could always file a suit in federal court, it was of no concern that one extra procedural hurdle existed for state courts. She further contended that giving notice was easy, and was not a de facto statute of limitations.
O’Connor’s dissent may or may not be correct. I’m not entirely sure. But I do think that if the majority opinion was activism, it was one of those rare cases where it was at least good activism. The policy reasons articulated by Brennan for holding the Wisconsin law inapplicable to 1983 suits were pretty solid.