Author Topic: Opinion analysis: Hyatt fulfills expectations in a surprising way  (Read 792 times)

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Offline Elderberry

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SCOTUSblog by Richard M. Re 5/14/2019

In an already familiar 5-4 lineup, the Supreme Court has overruled Nevada v. Hall, which for 40 years has stood for the proposition that states generally lack sovereign immunity in one another’s courts. The new decision vindicates a legal position long held by conservatives, but it appears to endorse a loose approach to finding structural principles in the Constitution. The ruling also adopts a less than exacting view of stare decisis — hardly surprising for Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the opinion of the court, but odd given that other members of the majority, particularly Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, have expressed greater concern for precedent. Time will tell whether Hyatt has set the stage for overrulings to come.

Hyatt involved a long-running suit by a Nevada resident against the Franchise Tax Board of California. The plaintiff, who filed suit in Nevada court, alleged a number of torts and initially won a huge damages award that has been whittled down through years of litigation. In fact, Hyatt is a “threepeater,” in that it has now reached the justices on three separate occasions. One possible explanation for this remarkable distinction is that there do not appear to be many cases involving successful state-court suits against other states. As a result, the justices have a hard time getting access to the sort of federal-courts questions that Hyatt tees up. The juiciest of those questions had to do with state sovereign immunity: Can a state like California assert sovereign immunity to defeat a lawsuit in the courts of another state?

In Nevada v. Hall, the Supreme Court answered “No.” But that was in 1979, before the Rehnquist Court had breathed new life into the doctrine of state sovereign immunity. In later decades, the court repeatedly distinguished Hall and expanded state immunity. And Hall is in some ways an awkward fit alongside those newer rulings. If states generally benefit from sovereign immunity in neutral federal courts, it is hard to see why they shouldn’t have the same advantage in the more partial courts of other states. As a result, many have assumed that Hall represented little more than a relic of an older view of state prerogatives. On its face, Hyatt vindicates that long-conventional understanding.

Yet the more recent Rehnquist Court decisions had acknowledged a plausible rationale for Hall. Even if the federal government lacks authority to override state sovereign immunity in federal court, the Constitution may have left states free to override the immunity of other states. On that view, Hall actually vindicated an important aspect of state sovereignty — namely, the sovereign authority to recognize or disclaim common law and international law forms of sovereign immunity. And although such an authority might sound troublesome, experience suggests the opposite: After Hall, there has been no explosion of state-court suits aiming to overcome the sovereign immunity of other states.