Wednesday, May 27, 2009
A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled yesterday that New York's efforts to limit prisoners' federal civil rights claims in New York state courts violated the Supremacy Clause.
New York moved to restrict prisoner-rights claims in New York state courts under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 in order to curb what it deemed "frivolous and vexatious" suits against state correctional officers. (Section 1983, a Reconstruction-era statute, authorizes civil suits against state officers for violations of federal constitutional rights in the scope of their employment. Plaintiffs can file in federal courts or in state courts of general jurisdiction.) Thus the state stripped its courts of jurisdiction over Section 1983 claims by prisoners against correction officers. (The state also stripped its courts of jurisdiction under a state statute that, like Section 1983, authorized civil suits against state officers for violations of constitutional rights.) But the state granted jurisdiction over these claims to a state court of limited jurisdiction, the Court of Claims, with a 90-day notice requirement, no entitlement to a jury trial, no right to attorney's fees, and no punitive damages or injunctive relief.
The New York law thus severely restricted prisoner-rights claims in state courts under Section 1983. (Prisoners, of course, could still file a Section 1983 claim in federal court.)
Justice Stevens (for himself and Justices Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) ruled that the New York law violated the Supremacy Clause. Stevens wrote that while "states retain substantial leeway to establish the contours of their judicial systems, they lack authority to nullify a federal right or cause of action they believe is inconsistent with their local policies." Slip Op. at 6. Because New York's law "operates more as an immunity-from-damages provision than as a jurisdictional rule," Slip Op. at 7, n. 5, it's not a "neutral state rule regarding the administration of the courts"--an exception to the "presumption of concurrency" between federal and state law under Howlett v. Rose (1990). Slip Op. at 6.
Moreover, the law was not "neutral," even though it divested state courts of jurisdiction over both state and federal law authorizing prisoner constitutional rights suits, because it targeted only a "particular species of suits--those seeking damages relief against correction officers." Slip Op. at 10. Stevens for the Court:
We therefore hold that, having made the decision to create courts of general jurisdiction that regularly sit to entertain analogous suits, New York is not at liberty to shut the courthouse door to federal claims that it considers at odds with its local policy. A State's authority to organize its courts, while considerable, remains subject to the strictures of the Constitution.
Slip Op. at 11.
In dissent, Justice Thomas (for himself, Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia and Alito) argued that the Court's cases didn't support the non-discriminatory requirement in the Court's definition of "neutral" and that states had plenty of authority and room to issue neutral rules of administration for their own courts. (Roberts, Scalia, and Alito joined only a narrow part of Thomas's much broader opinion, part of which focused on the original intent of Article III.)
The case is a victory for federal civil rights claimants in state courts. It means that states that seek to limit access to their courts for federal constitutional rights claimants face a higher bar--one that New York's efforts failed to satisfy--and that states can't try to side-step their way around federal civil rights law by disguising an immunity provision as a jurisdictional rule, even as states retain substantial authority to organize their own courts.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Another new book on Marbury v. Madison, The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court by Cliff Sloan & David McKean.
Here’s a bit from the Kirkus Review:
"Former Supreme Court clerk and Slate publisher Sloan and veteran political aide McKean bring to life one of the most important legal cases in American history.... Sloan and McKean supply Marbury's historical context and unravel the complex fabric of personalities, politics and law that animated the case.... The authors' enthusiasm and clear prose vivify the contention that, as Marshall said, 'It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.' A crisp, color examination of the case that established the formidable power of the federal judiciary."
Cliff Sloan also made a brief appearance on the Colbert show last night (February 24) to talk about the book and Marbury v. Madison. The short video might be good for class use and is available here. In the segment, Colbert remarks that judicial review is not in the Constitution and that the Court gave itself the power, calling Marshall the original activist judge.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in Haywood v. Drown. At issue: Whether New York's ban on section 1983 damage actions against state correctional officers in state court violates the Supremacy Clause.
A good part of the oral argument focused on whether the NY ban--Correction Law section 24--was "jurisdictional" and a "neutral state rule regarding the administration of the courts." The language comes from Howlett v. Rose, a 1990 Supreme Court case that the lower court cited in support of this: "One permissible exception" that allows states to deny enforcement of a federal right is "when a state court lacks jurisdiction due to a 'neutral state rule regarding the administration of the courts.'"
Is section 24 such a rule? Yes, says the state: It is a jurisdictional limitation based on the state's neutral desire to limit "vexatious" litigation. No, says the plaintiff: It carves out this special exception for correctional officers, treating them differently than all others for 1983 purposes, and reflects the state's substantive disagreement with the remedies under 1983.
The law professors' amicus is quite good; take a look at the excellent discussion of the Supremacy Clause and argument III on this jurisdictional question. Here's the respondents' brief; and here's the oral argument transcript.
Monday, October 20, 2008
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Bush administration officials "are pushing to rewrite a wide array of federal rules with changes or additions that could block product-safety lawsuits by consumers and states."
At issue is the practice of administrative agencies writing preemption clauses into proposed regulations, sometimes at OMB's behest, even though authorizing legislation does not contain a preemption provision. According to the WSJ, former administration domestic policy adviser Jay Lefkowitz said that the administration decided not to press its preemption agenda in Congress, because it might lose. It apparently has decided to take matters into its own hands.
The administration has argued that the clauses are evidence of federal preemption of plaintiffs' state tort claims, as long as defendants comply with federal law, thus undermining plaintiffs' claims--and protecting corporate defendants--in areas where the federal government regulates.
The Trial Lawyers Association (now the American Association for Justice) was quite critical in its report, after undercovering evidence of the practice through FOIA requests. The Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform has been supportive of administration preemption efforts.
The Court may weigh in next month in Wyeth v. Levine, a case involving the federal preemptive effects of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act's labelling requirements. The FDA's preemption clause plays a bit role in briefing on the larger conflict preemption issue, but the administration's amicus brief addresses it squarely in Argument C.2., running from page 26 to page 27 (of the brief, not of the pdf file). The administration writes:
In the preamble to a January 2006 rule concerning the labeling of drugs, FDA explained that the government's "long-standing view" is that "FDA approval of labeling under the [FDCA] * * * preempts conflicting or contrary State law," especially considering that "FDA interprets the [FDCA] to establish both a 'floor' and a 'ceiling'" for labeling. 71 Fed. Reg. at 3934, 3935.