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June 4, 2012
Supreme Court Action: Equal Protection and Qualified Immunity
The Supreme Court issued two opinions this morning. The first Is Armour v. Indianapolis (11-161). The case concerns an Indiana state law that assesses landowners for sewer projects as applied the city of Indianapolis forgave charges for some landowners when it transitioned to a different assessment system. Under the Barrett Law system, lot owners are equally assessed for the cost of a project but can either pay the entire assessment as a lump sum or over time in monthly payments for a period of 10 to 30 years.
Indianapolis completed the Brisbane/Manning sewer connection project and sent notices to all affected landowners. Thirty-eight elected to pay in a lump sum. Shortly afterwards, Indianapolis transitioned to a new STEP system of financing projects which used bonds, thus lowering the costs for individual landowners for future projects. The City decided to forgive future payments owed by landowners for the Brisbane/Manning project after the new system was adopted. Those who paid lump sums asked Indianapolis for a refund. The City refused the request. Thirty-one of those sued Indianapolis claiming the denial was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The trial court and intermediate Appellate Court held for the plaintiffs. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the City had a legitimate interest in reducing its administrative costs when it elected to forgive future payments for the Brisbane/Manning project.
The Supreme Court agreed and affirmed the Indiana Supreme Court. It stated that the City’s action did not involve a fundamental right or suspect classification, nor did it discriminate with out-of-state commerce or new residents. As such the distinction is valid so long as there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the classification. Reducing administrative costs for the City is one of them. The Court stated continuing the legacy system for the years left for all landowners to pay could prove complex and expensive. Processing refunds would add further costs. There was also the possibility that taxpayers from other projects would seek refunds or adjustments to their costs.
The Court’s opinion and that of the dissent turns on the applicability of the precedent of Allegheny Pittsburg Coal Co. v. Commission of Webster City, 488 U.S. 336 (1989). That case held that a county assessor’s practice of valuing property based on the last sale price violated the Equal Protection Clause in light of a state constitutional provision and state law that required equal valuation of equally valuable property. The Court distinguished this case by noting that the Indiana statutes say nothing about a forgiveness program or how to design one, or whether or when rational distinctions in doing so are permitted.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Justice Breyer and joined by Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Chief Justice Roberts dissented, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito. Chief Justice Roberts’ view of the record is that the City had records of payments that were easily examined to determine any refunds that could be made. He discounted the costs associated with at least that part of transitioning systems. As he put it:
The Equal Protection Clause does not provide that no State shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, unless it’s too much of a bother.”
The second case is Reichle v. Howards (11-262). The underlying facts of the case got their share of headlines when they occurred. There was an event where citizens were able to meet Vice President Cheney. Secret Service agent Doyle overheard Howards speaking to someone via cell phone that he planned to ask Vice President Cheney “how many kids he killed today.” Howards entered the line to meet the Vice President, told him that his policies in Iraq were “disgusting” and touched the Vice President’s shoulder as he was leaving.
Doyle briefed Agent Reichle who interviewed and then arrested Howards. He was charged with harassment. The charges were dismissed and Howards brought a §1983 and Bivens action against the agents. Howards claimed he was arrested and searched without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that his arrest was in retaliation for criticizing the Vice President. The District Court denied the agents’ motion for summary judgment on the basis they were entitled to qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit reversed in regard to the Fourth Amendment claim holding that there was probable cause for the arrest but affirmed the denial of qualified immunity on the First Amendment claim. There was question whether Supreme Court precedent holding that probable cause to arrest defeats a First Amendment retaliatory prosecution.
The Court reversed the Tenth Circuit on the First Amendment retaliation claim, granting the agents qualified immunity on that count. The Court stated that it was not clearly established by prior case law that an arrest supported by probable clause could give rise to a First Amendment violation. The right would have to be sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have notice or understanding that his actions violate that right.
The Court noted that Tenth Circuit precedent had distinguished Supreme Court holdings to the contrary on the First Amendment violation. The Court’s prior precedent granted immunity in retaliatory prosecutions. It was an open question whether that precedent applied to arrests. The Court goes to some pains to hold that today’s decision does not automatically apply to arrest circumstances, but as an open question, the agents are entitled to qualified immunity. There is discussion on the relationship between arrests and prosecution in that prosecutors are absolutely immune for their decisions while those who prompt the arrest can have immunity in some circumstances.
The logic of the holding is a bit complex, though that is expected when the opinion (and its underlying reality) is delivered by Justice Thomas. He was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, and Sotomayor. Justice Kagan did not participate in the case. Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Breyer filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. She would give some leeway to agents charged with protecting public officials in making split second decisions in the field. [MG]