June 2, 2009 4:54PM

Haywood v. Drown

The Supreme Court ruling in Haywood v. Drown got lost in the news last week, but it was an important constitutional case involving the principle of federalism. The issue concerned the extent to which the central government can commandeer state judicial systems. Unfortunately, by a narrow 5–4 vote, the Court gave the central government a green light.

Justice Clarence Thomas filed another one of his sober, scholarly opinions in dissent and I think he makes the case rather well. Excerpt:

The Court holds that New York Correction Law Annotated §24, which divests New York’s state courts of subject‐​matter jurisdiction over suits seeking money damages from correction officers, violates the Supremacy Clause ofthe Constitution, Art. VI, cl. 2, because it requires the dismissal of federal actions brought in state court under42 U. S. C. §1983. I disagree. Because neither the Constitution nor our precedent requires New York to open its courts to §1983 federal actions, I respectfully dissent.

Although the majority decides this case on the basis of the Supremacy Clause, see ante, at 5–13, the proper starting point is Article III of the Constitution. Article III, §1, provides that “[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The history of the drafting and ratification of this Article establishes that it leaves untouched the States’ plenary authority to decide whether their local courts will have subject‐​matter jurisdiction over federal causes of action.

Until this setback, the Court’s conservatives were doing well in this corner of the law. In New York v. United States (1992), the Court ruled that state legislatures were not subject to federal direction. In Printz v. United States (1997), the Court ruled that state executive officers were not subject to federal direction. This case stood for the proposition that state courts are not subject to federal direction. Alas, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the liberals to subordinate the states to federal control.

Here’s a practical example to illustrate the problem. It’s bad enough when Congress wants to pass a law like the Americans with Disabilities Act (pdf)–a law that will create a flood of litigation. But what if Congress goes a step further and writes the law in such as way as to say “take all those time‐​consuming lawsuits to the state courts. Federal judges and personnel can’t be bothered with that stuff!” So state courts get clogged or state lawmakers must raise taxes to alleviate the added burden, which blurs accountability. That’s what is likely to happen. Or, to be precise, continue to happen with increasing frequency. The feds have permission to foist costs on to the states.

But, to be clear, the main issue here is the proper division of federal and state authority. Even if Congress were to get around the problem of unfunded mandates by throwing money at the states, each state should retain control over its judiciary. As Justice Thomas notes, the issue of federal supremacy is too often distorted by liberals. Within its proper sphere, the feds are supreme. Liberals want supremacy and federal authority that is plenary. Wrong. Obama’s Supreme Court nominee should be asked about federalism and the doctrine of enumerated powers at the confirmation hearings.