In what one justice called an "unprecedented step," the Supreme Court yesterday voluntarily stripped federal courts of jurisdiction over a whole class of constitutional violations--those involving state and local taxes.
In a ruling on a case involving property tax assessments, the court said that such taxes are the business of state and local governments, and federal courts should not intervene.
The ruling, written by Justice William H. Rehnquist and supported by four other justices, bars property taxpayers from suing local officials for damages in federal courts under civil rights laws. That will please cities, states and counties who have been complaining bitterly about what they consider the ever-expanding reach of those laws into their affairs.
But the debate was not over property taxes. It was over what Justice William J. Brennan called the "unprecedented step of renouncing our assigned jurisdiction."
While all nine justices agreed that a Missouri suit brought under a civil rights law should not be heard in federal court, Brennan and three others differed sharply with the philosophy behind Rehnquist's opinion.
Among those on Brennan's side was junior Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who, it was generally thought, would come down with Rehnquist on the side of state authority in such cases. It was her first public vote in an opinion on an issue seriously contested among the justices.
The case stemmed from a suit by St. Louis County, Mo., property tax activists and a couple, J. David and Lynn F. Casilly, who said their rights had been violated by county tax officials.
The Casillys said the county increased their assessment because earlier they had appealed their tax bill successfully through administrative channels. They alleged that people who appealed were targeted for upward reassessment in retaliation.
Claiming the action violated their rights to equal treatment and due process under the Constitution, they sued state and local officials to recover the extra taxes and $75,000 in punitive damages.
They based their suit on the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which is used frequently by inmates protesting prison conditions, minorities protesting police brutality and welfare recipients protesting government action to reduce benefits.
In recent years, with a few exceptions in local criminal court proceedings, federal courts have expanded the right to sue in federal court under that law.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court narrowed that right. Though such civil rights suits can be brought in state courts, Rehnquist wrote, suits involving property tax disputes may not be entertained by federal judges.
The dispute on the court is central to the fight over "judicial activism." When Congress has not explicitly defined the powers of federal courts in specific situations, the court can either assume the authority or reject it.
Congress never specifically said that civil rights damages suits may not be brought, Rehnquist acknowledged. Nevertheless, principles of federalism, of "comity" between state and federal authority, dictate federal nonintervention in this area, Rehnquist said.
Property taxes are exclusive preserves of state authority, he wrote. Congress underscored that in the 1930s by prohibiting federal judges from intervening in collection of taxes by state and local governments.
Brennan, with Justices Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens and O'Connor, agreed that federal courts should not hear the St. Louis protest because the plaintiffs had not properly brought their complaints to local administrative channels first.
But they vehemently objected to closing federal courthouse doors to such suits.
Brennan said the authority of federal courts was dictated by Congress when it wrote the civil rights law. Rehnquist's opinion, he said, effectively nullified Congress's dictate.
"I cannot agree that this case and the jurisdiction of the federal courts over an action for damages brought pursuant to express congressional authority is to be governed by applying a 'principle of comity' grounded solely on this court's notion of an appropriate division of responsibility between the federal and state judicial systems," he wrote.