(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Saturday, March 01, 2003

S.Ct. prediction
I'm jumping over a case, the latest in a series of cases before the Supreme Court about Congressional attempts to block internet porn; I'll get to that before it's argued on Wednesday, really. But moving ahead, the second case for Wednesday – and the last case for a couple of weeks – is Jinks v. Richland County, SC. The question presented is whether there is ANY limit to what the Rehnquist Court will do in the name of "state's rights". That's not really the question, but it's close.

Under 28 U.S.C. 1367, if you bring a lawsuit in federal court based on alleged violations of federal law, you can also add claims that are based on state law, too. Then, if the federal court issues a decision on the federal law claims and doesn't feel like messing with the state law claim, it can dismiss the state law claim "without prejudice", meaning that you're free to refile the state law claim in state court. But what if the state law "statute of limitations" – the legally-provided period of time within which you have to bring a lawsuit – has run in the meantime, while you were litigating in federal court? Should you be out of luck, and unable to pursue your state law claims based on the passage of time, simply because the federal court didn’t want to bother? The federal statute (1367(d)) answers this problem by saying "the state law limitations period is tolled while you were litigating in federal court, and for 30 days thereafter" – which is to say, in effect, you won't be out of luck in state court if the federal court declines to hear your state law claim.

But the South Carolina Supreme Court. in a suit against a county, held, "State's rights! state's rights! That darn Congress has got no business telling us how to do our own darn statute of limitations in our own darn courts in a suit against our own darn county! State's rights! Tenth Amendment! The state-court lawsuit that Jinks filed, after the federal court declined to decide her state-law claim, was untimely under our statute of limitations. We hold the statute unconstitutional! No lawsuit for you!"

This argument sounds absurd to me. But it also sounded absurd to me when the State of Minnesota said something close to the same thing last year, as to a suit against the State itself (not a county), in a case called Raygor; and it sounded positively wacky when the Supreme Court ruled for Minnesota! So my sense of what's absurd is different from the Supreme Court's. (The Supreme Court, it may be noted, decided the Minnesota case not by concluding that the statute was unconstitutional, but by interpreting the statute in a rather strained way, as not applying to state-law claims against states, so as to avoid the constitutional question).

Nonetheless, to agree with the South Carolina Supreme Court would be even MORE absurd, because here we're talking not about a state but about a county; and as I've mentioned before, cities and counties generally don't have the sort of "sovereignty" that states so happily enjoy in the Supreme Court these days. The interpretive route that the Supreme Court took in Raygor shouldn't help the County here, because of the difference between "county" and "state". We can infer pretty easily from the concurrence and dissent in Raygor that the four quasi-liberal Justices will vote to reverse. Will all five of the others vote to affirm? I can't bring myself to believe that they will be that extreme. The reversal, indeed, ought to be unanimous; in any event, REVERSE it is.

(There are now only 25 more cases to predict, for this Term. There is light at the end of the tunnel).

posted by sam 3:01 PM 0 comments


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