Category Archives: states

Bowen v. Massachusetts

487 U. S. 879

June 29, 1988

This case involved a dispute between the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Massachusetts about the HHS disallowing a reimbursement for Massachusetts health expenditures. Massachusetts wanted the claim heard in District Court, as ostensibly allowed by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). HHS contended that the APA did not allow suits against it in District Court for “money damages,” and that, in any case, Massachusetts had an adequate remedy through suing in Claims Court under the Tucker Act.

The Court ruled 6-3 that a District Court could have jurisdiction. Stevens said that the phrase “money damages” was a legal term of art referring to monetary compensation for other harm done. By contrast, seeking merely to gain an amount of money legally due was known as asking for “monetary compensation.” Stevens said that legislative history, as well as a lower court opinion by no less of an authority than Robert Bork, proved this distinction. Thus, Massachusetts could still ask for a money judgment against HHS in District Court. Stevens also found that the Claims Court would not offer an adequate remedy. Those courts did not provide equitable relief, such as the declaratory and injunctive relief Massachusetts was also seeking. Furthermore, there was reason to believe that the Medicaid administration questions involved in the case were really beyond the scope of the Claims Court’s wheelhouse.

White concurred in judgment. He cryptically noted that he agreed with all of the majority’s ultimate conclusions, except for its statement that Massachusetts could request monetary compensation in District Court. He said that they would have to settle for mere declaratory and injunctive relief. Scalia, joined by Rehnquist and Kennedy, dissented vigorously. He thought the majority’s distinction between “money damages” and “monetary relief” was total crap, and utterly unsupported by legal history. Almost any suit, he argued, to obtain money is a suit for “money damages.” Thus, the APA barred District Court jurisdiction. He also claimed that the majority’s reasons for holding that the Claims Court could not provide an adequate remedy were completely specious. The Claims Court was more than capable of taking the case and providing an adequate solution for Massachusetts.

Scalia made particular note that both of the case’s major holdings would effectively deprive the Claims Court of most of its docket, and cause a ream of other policy problems. He even predicted that lower courts would probably confine the ruling to its immediate facts, because trying to apply it would cause total chaos in the Claims Court. He closed with these words which I could not more heartily agree with: “Nothing is more wasteful than litigation about where to litigate, particularly when the options are all courts within the same legal system that will apply the same law. Today’s decision is a potential cornucopia of waste.”


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).

Monessen Southwestern R. Co. v. Morgan

486 U. S. 330

June 6, 1988

A railroad worker was permanently injured, allegedly due to the railroad’s negligence. He brought a federal action in Pennsylvania state court to recover lost future earnings. The court did two questionable things, the first based on a state law, and the second based on a state judicial ruling – first, it awarded ‘prejudgment interest,’ which gave the worker interest on damages that accrued prior to the verdict. Second, it instructed the jury not to find the present value of his lost future earnings, but the nominal value of it. Both these things were challenged as inconsistent with the federal law that formed the basis of the suit.

The Court ruled 7-2 that prejudgment interest could not be awarded. White said that state laws allowing prejudgment interest were substantial rules that could not be countenanced unless the federal law clearly allowed them. At the time the federal law was enacted, White contended, prejudgment interest was seen as suspect by most courts. Therefore, it could be presumed that Congress did not intend the law to allow prejudgment interest damages when it was passed. White also noted that Congress had ample opportunity in subsequent years to clearly include prejudgment interest within the law’s scope, but declined to do so.

Turning to the jury instruction question, the Court ruled unanimously that the Pennsylvania court had erred in instructing the jurors to merely find the nominal value. Precedents held that present value was the correct value to find for future earnings, and that the jury needed some freedom in determining the best formula for that calculation. By assuring the jury that the nominal value was legally presumed to be the same as the present value, the judge took this freedom away from the jury. O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist, only concurred in judgment on this issue. She felt that a judge could appropriately suggest that jurors compute nominal value if the judge had carefully studied the economics before doing so.

Blackmun, joined by Marshall, dissented from the prejudgment interest holding. He said the federal law should be interpreted liberally, and with an eye on its purpose of compensating injured workers with damages. Blackmun argued that prejudgment interest was an integral component of making the plaintiff whole, and that the alleged judicial aversion to interest at the time of the law’s passage was overblown. Finally, he felt prejudgment interest was especially appropriate given the rule that the present value should be found for future earnings – interest on pre-verdict lost earnings was simply the other side of that coin.

Once again, as in K mart v. Cartier, my brain is too taxed just from trying to understand this stupid decision to have much of an opinion about its soundness.

Budinich v. Becton Dickinson & Co.

486 U. S. 196

May 23, 1988

In May of 1984, a federal court in Colorado issued final judgment on everything but attorneys fees. The attorneys fees issue received final judgment in August. Following this, an appeal was lodged on the merits, but this appeal was dismissed because the time limit for appeal had started running in May, and had expired. The plaintiff then contended that, under a Colorado state law, the clock did not start running on appeals until the question of attorneys fees got settled, and that this state law should be applied by the federal court.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled otherwise. Scalia said that prior cases had largely assumed that judgment was final and ripe for appeal prior to determination of attorneys fees. Since the fees are not a part of the underlying merits, it does not make sense to wait for them to be settled before starting the appeals clock. Furthermore, because uniformity and bright line rules are much to be desired in the realm of federal litigation, Scalia declined the suggestion that federal courts be forced to follow state laws defining when judgments become final. Scalia also brushed aside a last ditch contention that all this was a change in the rules which should be only applied prospectively, and not to the instant case.

This is one of those strange unanimous cases where you fully expect a Brennan/Marshall dissent, but it’s not there. Eventually, you get so used to them backing the ‘little guy,’ no matter what, that a case where it doesn’t happen seems downright shocking.

Chick Kam Choo v. Exxon Corp.

486 U. S. 140

May 16, 1988

When a Singapore citizen was killed on a Exxon tanker, his wife filed a maritime case in a Federal District Court in Exxon’s home state of Texas. The District Court said that it was the improper forum because the case was far more connected to Singapore than America. The widow filed again in Texas state court, but Exxon got the District Court to issue an injunction against the state court considering the issue, due to the District Court’s previous improper forum ruling. The widow said that this injunction against the state court violated the Anti-Injunction Act.

Unanimously, the Supreme Court agreed. O’Connor said that the Anti-Injunction Act allowed injunctions to prevent issues resolved in federal courts from being re-litigated in state courts, but that this power should be narrowly construed. While the District Court ruled that the District Court itself was an improper forum, it did not specifically rule that Texas state courts were also improper forums (though, in a concurrence, Justice White said that the District Court certainly would have had the legal right to do so).  O’Connor pointed out that the District Court had resolved one legal claims that she was raising in the state court case. O’Connor did admit that the injunction was valid to the extent that it barred that specific legal claim from being re-litigated.

This was the right decision. If federal courts are going to start issuing injunctions against state court proceedings, they better have the most crystal clear of legal justifications for doing so.

South Carolina v. Baker

485 U. S. 505

April 20, 1988

Because unregistered bonds were often used for tax evasion, Congress imposed a heavy tax on income from unregistered bonds. This made unregistered bonds so unattractive that it no longer seemed reasonable for several states to even issue them. South Carolina said this squelching of unregistered bonds violated the Tenth Amendment, as well as the historic intergovernmental tax immunity given to state-issued bonds.

Nonetheless, the Court upheld the new tax law 7-1 (Kennedy did not participate). Brennan reminded poor South Carolina that, under the Garcia case from 1985, the Tenth Amendment was all but eviscerated. Moving on to a more specific claim of commandeering – that states were being conscripted to pass new laws on bonds – he said that as long as the states passed the new laws out of indirect coercion rather than direct forcing, there was no Tenth Amendment problem. Finally, Brennan faced the bond tax immunity argument from the 1895 case Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., and simply overruled Pollock. It used to be that every tax on a contract with the government was thought immune, but that doctrine had faded away decades ago, and bonds were the last surviving vestige of it.

Stevens said in a brief concurrence that even without Garcia, the Tenth Amendment argument still would have failed. Scalia joined the majority opinion except for the Tenth Amendment part. He wrote that he agreed with the conclusion, but disagreed with the majority’s almost gleeful minimizing of the Amendment. Rehnquist concurred in judgment. A Special Master had concluded that the bond tax would not be a big burden on states, and that essentially concluded the case for him.

O’Connor dissented sharply. She would not tolerate the continued evisceration of the Tenth Amendment, and also objected to overruling Pollock. The erosion of the doctrine underlying Pollock was based on the non-burdensome nature of the tax on government contracts. Contra Rehnquist, she interpreted the Special Master to conclude that the bond tax would indeed be burdensome to states. Thus, state issued bonds still deserved immunity. This is one of those odd cases where O’Connor was substantially more ‘conservative’ than Scalia and Rehnquist. Whatever else might be said about her, she truly was possibly the best federalist the Court has ever had in the post-Four Horsemen era.

Texas v. New Mexico

485 U. S. 388

March 28, 1988

A year earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that New Mexico had cheated Texas out of some water, and needed to repay it. Whether this repayment would be through money or specific performance was left undetermined, and the Court said a River Master would be appointed to help settle everything. Now, a year later, a new decree was ready to be entered. This new decree chose specific performance as the remedy required of New Mexico. It also appointed Neil S. Grigg (a water expert) to be River Master, and defined his duties with some detail. Stevens did not participate in the formulation  of this decree.

Schneidewind v. ANR Pipeline Co.

485 U. S. 293

March 22, 1988

A natural gas company wanted to sell securities, but the State of Michigan said that its regulatory commission would have to approve this first. The natural gas company protested that federal regulation of the industry was so comprehensive that any regulation by a state was preempted. Michigan responded that federal regulation did not cover the issue of securities, and that companies could certainly comply with both sets of regulations.

The Supreme Court unanimously found preemption (Kennedy did not participate). Blackmun left open the question of whether states could regulate natural gas securities in the absence of federal legislation, but then showed how elaborate and comprehensive the federal regime of regulation was. Although the federal scheme did not specifically mention securities, both state and federal regulation was indeed aimed at controlling the rates and facilities of natural gas companies. Because the end goal was the same, the Michigan law would need to be preempted. Furthermore, while it wouldn’t always happen, on occasion a company would find complying with both sets of regulation an impossibility. Blackmun also was unimpressed that Congress had voted against direct regulation of natural gas securities, since Congressional inaction had historically not mattered in preemption cases. Ultimately a very simple case; moving along.

United States v. Louisiana

485 U. S. 88

March 1, 1988

First, a word about the case name. The official citation is “United States v. Louisiana,” but the case does not involve Louisiana at all. United States Reports uses the more colloquial “Alabama and Mississippi Boundary Case,” but Alabama is likewise not involved at all. Well over a decade before, the federal government had began fighting with all three states about their territorial reach into the Gulf of Mexico, but by 1988 only Mississippi was still fighting. At issue was an area of water known as the Chandeleur Sound. The Special Master in charge of arbitrating the territorial disputes claimed that dealing with the Chandeleur area was beyond the scope of his charge.

Justice Blackmun wrote for a unanimous Court, and agreed with the Special Master (Marshall and Kennedy did not participate). Blackmun observed that Mississippi and the United States were substantially in accord about the area which was within the Special Master’s purview. He thus directed that an ultimate settlement be finally made for the areas within that purview, and allowed that the parties could come back later and institute new action to deal with the Chandeleur Sound dispute.

Welch v. Texas Dept. of Highways and Public Transp.

483 U. S. 468

June 25, 1987

Jean Welch, while working for the State of Texas, was injured on a ferry dock. She tried to sue Texas in admiralty law under a federal tort claim statute called the Jones Act. Texas protested that being sued violated the state’s sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. The Supreme Court had decided a century ago in Hans that sovereign immunity could protect a state from being sued by its own citizen, and more recent decisions had suggested that Congress could not create a statutory right to sue a state unless the law provided this expressly. The Jones Act had no such express provision.

The Court ruled against Welch 5-4, with Powell writing. After backing Texas for the reasons just stated, he turned to the dissent’s arguments that the Eleventh Amendment was misinterpreted, and that Hans was wrongly decided. Powell said that, at worst, the historical evidence of sovereign immunity’s original scope was ambiguous, and stare decisis foreclosed the possibility of overruling Hans on the basis of some inconclusive historical arguments. In response to the dissent’s claim that suing in admiralty was outside of the Amendment’s purview, Powell again showed that the history did not unequivocally support such a reading. The majority stressed that Welch could still sue state officials, and that sovereign immunity served crucial federalism concerns.

White’s concurrence emphasized that the Jones Act did indeed give Welch some alternate relief. Scalia concurred in judgment. He creatively argued that even if the dissent was right about Hans, Congress had passed the Jones Act on the assumption that Hans was correct, and thus, the law couldn’t possibly abrogate sovereign immunity. Brennan’s dissent, joined by Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, first said that admiralty was never part of state sovereign immunity. Lots of early case law backed him up, or so he claimed. Next, Brennan said that the Eleventh Amendment, by its literal text, only protected states against suits from non-citizens of that state. Again, history was his great sword of argumentation. Out of his grab bag, Brennan also pulled the claims that the Eleventh Amendment only applied to cases in diversity, and that the majority improperly discounted a recent Warren Court precedent.

This is one of those fun cases where everyone on the Court – left, right, and center – suddenly becomes a dyed-in-the-wool originalist. I don’t really know who’s history is better, and given the ambiguity I have to side with Powell due to the stare decisis concerns. I particularly liked Scalia’s elegant argument. All this in spite of the fact that I personally disagree with the concept of sovereign immunity. The Eleventh Amendment is one the USA could do without. No one, not even a state, should be above the law, and above accountability.