States Keep Eyes on High Court Docket
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
One-of-a-kind state laws - such as Oregon's physician-assisted suicide and Vermont's campaign spending limits - may be getting the most attention, but there's already plenty on the U.S. Supreme Court's docket this year that will affect the day-to-day dealings of state governments.
A significant case over tax breaks that Ohio gave to an automaker in 1998 could spell out limits on economic incentives states can use to lure companies. A suit brought by a prisoner in Georgia could determine whether state prisons must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And a dispute over medical bills in Arkansas could clarify rules for states trying to recover money they've spent on Medicaid patients.
On top of that, state officials likely will monitor the court's decisions this year for "signs and tea-leaf reading" on how new members of the court view federalism, said Stephen Wermeil, a professor of constitutional law at American University Washington College of Law.
That's especially true because the two justices being replaced - the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - were deeply involved in the court's move to curb federal authority over the states, he explained.
Chief Justice John Roberts succeeded Rehnquist, who died in September of cancer. O'Connor, a former majority leader in the Arizona Senate and a crucial swing vote on the high court, has said she will step down when her successor is confirmed.
The turnover on the court comes as the justices already have agreed to hear nearly a dozen appeals with significance for states during the court's 2005-2006 term, which began Oct. 3. The high court could add even more cases to their docket later in the term.
One conflict with potentially far-reaching effects for states is the dispute over Ohio's tax incentives to convince DaimlerChrysler to replace - rather than close - an aging Jeep assembly plant in Toledo. The case has sparked similar lawsuits in both state and federal courts.
Ohio wants the justices to overturn a decision by a Cincinatti-based federal appeals court that invalidated DaimlerChrysler's tax breaks because the incentives ran afoul of the federal government's exclusive authority to regulate interstate commerce.
The state argues that setting tax policy and encouraging economic development are two essential functions of state governments. The National Governors Association is backing Ohio in the appeal.
"NGA has an interest in this matter because the Sixth Circuit's decision calls into question the constitutionality of tax incentives in virtually all 50 states," its lawyers argued in a friend-of-the-court brief.
"These tax incentives are one of the primary tools governors use to promote economic development and job growth in the states," they stated. DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 04-1704 and Wilkins v. Cuno, 04-1724.
Federalism is also central to a case brought by a paraplegic Georgia inmate that could settle whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to state facilities.
The prisoner, Tony Goodman, is confined to a wheelchair because of a 1992 car accident. He's contesting his placement in a prison cell where, according to his lawyers, he cannot turn himself around or use the toilet without assistance, which prison guards refused to give.
Goodman broke several bones at different times trying to move from his wheelchair to the toilet. When he wasn't able to reach, he sat in his own waste and was punished for not cleaning up. For two years, Goodman was unable to shower, because the prison's showers were not handicapped accessible, his attorneys said.
He's suing under the ADA, which prohibits states from discriminating on the basis of disabilities.
But there's a question of whether Congress had the authority to impose those limits on states, which - with a few exceptions -- are protected from suit by the 11 th Amendment.
The court has found limited exceptions to state immunity when Congress passed laws addressing racial and gender discrimination; the question in the Georgia case is whether Congress can rely on the same exceptions for laws protecting the disabled. United States v. Georgia, 04-1203 and Goodman v. Georgia, 04-1236.
The Oregon assisted-suicide case hinges on how to interpret a federal statute. The outcome could have far-reaching social implications but, legally, the dispute is over the construction of the federal Controlled Substances Act.
"The ruling could be a narrow ruling, but the court will most likely have some things to say about federalism," Wermeil said. That's because the case pits the will of the people in one state, the only one to allow dying patients to get prescriptions for lethal doses, against the interpretation of the law by the U.S. Department of Justice, he explained. The case is Gonzales et al. v. Oregon et al., 04-623.
The court also will hear a direct challenge to one of its own precedents from the state of Vermont, which passed a one-of-a-kind law imposing spending limits on campaign expenditures. In 1976, the high court ruled that those types of limits violate the First Amendment's protection of free speech. Randall et al. v. Sorrell et al, 04-1528, Vermont State Republican Cmte. v. Sorrell, 04-1530 and Sorrell v. Randall, 04-1697.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has filed friend-of-the-court briefs in three disputes slated for argument, including two that deal with the First Amendment rights of governmental employees.
- One centers on whether a federal prosecutor can be sued for wrongful prosecution even though the charges in question were supported by probable cause. Michael Hartman, et al. v. William G. Moore, Jr., 04-1495.
- Another deals with a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney's office who claims he was punished for a recommendation he made to his superiors challenging the sufficiency of a search warrant. Gil Garcetti v. Richard Ceballos, 04-473.
- The third case questions whether federal bankruptcy laws trump states' sovereign immunity. The case pits a bankrupt bookstore against four state universities in Virginia that are fighting a federal appeals court's order to pay the store $356,000 like any other creditor. Central Virginia Community College et al., v. Katz, 04-885.
Other cases important to states include:
- An appeal from Arkansas over how much money the state can get back from a 19-year-old crash victim for medical bills it paid in her recovery. The crash left Heidi Ahlborn disabled, thus qualifying her for Medicaid. She later secured a $550,000 personal injury settlement from the crash. Arkansas sought reimbursement for the $215,645 Medicaid spent on her medical care, but Ahlborn convinced a federal court in St. Louis that she owed the state only $35,581 stemming from estimated medical costs. Arkansas Department of Health v. Ahlborn, 04-1506.
- A challenge to New Hampshire's abortion restriction, which requires parental notification but provides no exception for the health of the mother. Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England et al., 04-1144.
- Arguments over whether Kansas' death penalty law is unconstitutional, because it calls for capital punishment even in cases where the factors in favor of imposing a death sentence are equally balanced with reasons against allowing an execution. Kansas v. Marsh, 04-1170.