by Howard Wasserman
A few points in furtherance of the model of "judicial departmentalism" that Kevin Walsh coined and that I have been urging, beginning with the marriage equality litigation and its aftermath.
First, the law imposes a number of incentives for governments and government officials not to push the departmentalist boundary, chief among them attorneys' fees for prevailing plaintiffs. This story discusses the fee awardsfrom the marriage-equality litigation, which have topped $ 1 million in a number of states. The fee request in Tennessee (one of the states who defended in SCOTUS) is $ 2 million.Texas was ordered to pay about $ 600,000 (in a case that had limited briefing and a summary affirmance in the court of appeals), which the state plans to appeal. The point is, it will get pretty expensive for states if many of their officials decide to follow Kim Davis or Roy Moore and force couples to bring inevitably successful new litigation to obtain marriage licenses. [Update: A new report says Montana settled for $ 100k, bringing the national total to $ 13.4 million).]
Second, SCOTUS today in a per curiam decision in James v. City of Boise (pp. 13-14) held that the Supreme Court of Idaho was bound by SCOTUS interpretations of federal law--in this case, the limitation on § 1988 that prevailing defendants may recover fees only if a claim is frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. The state court had said that SCOTUS did not have the authority to limit the interpretive discretion of state courts, only of lower federal courts. The court made quick work of that argument, emphasizing the disuniformity it would engender (citing Justice Story in Martin) and insisting that "it is the duty of other courts to respect that understanding of the governing rule of law." Although I try not to read tea leaves, this looks like a shot across the bow of the Supreme Court of Alabama. That court seems itching to following Idaho with respect toObergefell and is being urged to do so by the litigants and by Chief Justice Roy Moore. James suggests that SCOTUS will quickly and easily dispose of that effort.
Third, I like the way the Court described its authority--the Court says what a statute means and it is "the duty of other courts to respect that understanding." (emphasis mine). The Court did not say it was the duty of officers or offices other than courts. I am not suggesting this drafting was deliberate or that it reflects a sudden wave of departmentalism in the Court; more likely, it was written this way because that was how this case presented. Still, it captures what I believe is the appropriate scope of the Court's power to "say what the law is" and to whom.
Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 25, 2016