Justices further states' rights

Divided court rules states can't be sued under federal law

June 24, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Going further than ever before to insulate states from federal laws, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the states are immune -- unless they consent -- to being sued in state courts by individuals or companies seeking to enforce those laws.

The court issued the final rulings of its annual term amid a powerful new demonstration of a five-justice majority's commitment to expanding states' rights -- an effort that has continued throughout this decade.

That has been a heated effort, with the justices arguing and rearguing one of the core issues fought over at the time the Constitution was written 211 years ago: what powers the states gave up when the national government was formed, and what they kept.

The debate has divided the court along ideological lines, with the court's more-conservative justices on one side and its more-liberal members on the other. In the past 10 years, the court has issued a series of decisions cutting back sharply on the states' exposure to lawsuits and on the Congress' power to dictate that the states must obey federal mandates.

By a 5-4 majority, the court held yesterday that the states have legal immunity not because of any specific wording in the Constitution but because of the broad "design and structure" of the American government system -- a system of two "sovereign" governments, one federal, the other a collection of independent states.

"Congress has vast power but not all power," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the most significant majority opinion, a 51-page essay on history going back more than two centuries to English law and the founding of American government.

"Congress," Kennedy added, "must accord states the esteem due to them as joint participants in a federal system. Congress has ample means to ensure compliance with valid federal laws, but it must respect the sovereignty of the states."

The ruling does not mean that states do not have to obey federal laws. A federal law is treated as "the law of the land," and state courts must apply it, too, if a proper case is before them, the court made clear. But the ruling strictly limits the options of getting such cases into state courts, so enforcement could be more sporadic.

As the court announced three separate 5-4 rulings favoring states' rights, taking more than 40 minutes to do so, the courtroom crackled with an excited sense of history and heady judicial protest.

In a rare outpouring of wrath, dissenting justices took turns denouncing the five justices in the majority.

Justice John Paul Stevens, the most aroused dissenter, lambasted the majority's idea of state "sovereign immunity" as "much like a mindless dragon that indiscriminately chews gaping holes in federal statutes."

Borrowing a quote from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Stevens said: "It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that it was laid down in the time of Henry IV."

Justice David H. Souter likened the decision to one of the court's most discredited rulings, a 1905 decision in the Lochner case that went far toward barring Congress and state legislatures from passing laws to deal with working conditions and public safety.

The Lochner decision struck down a New York state law limiting the hours that a bakery's workers could be on the job weekly.

The court, he said, was closing the century by relying on "a conception of state sovereignty that is true neither to history nor to the structure of the Constitution."

Yesterday's main ruling left individuals or companies claiming protection under federal law to depend mainly on the federal government taking action -- in court or in agencies' actions -- to defend those rights.

Congress, though, retains the power to try to induce states to obey federal laws by giving them financial incentives. And it still has the authority to authorize lawsuits, in state or federal court, to compel states to respect constitutional rights.

Yesterday's ruling cut back on Congress' power to legislate on subjects other than constitutional rights. But that power is the one Congress most often uses, especially for social and economic legislation.

After the ruling, individuals still have the right to sue specific state officials for violating their federal rights, unless such a lawsuit would lead to damages the state would have to pay.

Individuals also have the right to sue, in federal or state court, if a city or county government violates their federal rights. Local governments do not share in states' immunity under the Constitution.

Seven years ago, the court had ruled that Congress cannot use its broad legislative power to expose states to private lawsuits in federal courts. By the same 5-4 majority, the court held yesterday that Congress also lacks authority to open up state courts to such lawsuits without state consent.

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