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Supreme Court Weighs Core Questions of Precedent and States’ Rights

Category: Political News,Politics

WASHINGTON — A long-running dispute between a Nevada man and California tax authorities made its third appearance at the Supreme Court on Wednesday, prompting spirited arguments about the power of precedent and the limits of state sovereignty.

The question for the justices was a fundamental one: May states be sued in the courts of other states? The Supreme Court said yes in 1979 but came close to overruling that decision in 2016, in an earlier encounter with Wednesday’s case, Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt, No. 17-1299.

Back then, the court was short-handed after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and it deadlocked 4 to 4. Now that the court is back at full strength, it will almost certainly resolve the question.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, perhaps thinking of other precedents that may be at risk now that the court has a solid conservative majority, expressed worry that the court may be inclined to overrule decisions too lightly.

“Every time we overrule a case, it’s like a little chink in an armor,” he said, adding that uncertainty makes it harder for lawyers to give good legal advice.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., a member of the conservative majority, took a different view.

“Do you think,” he asked, “that the public would have greater respect for an institution that says, ‘You know, we’re never going to admit we made a mistake; because we said it and we decided it, we’re going to stick to it even if we think it’s wrong,’ or an institution that says, ‘Well, you know, we’re generally going to stick to what we’ve done, but we’re not perfect.’”

Wednesday’s case arose from aggressive efforts by officials in California to determine when Gilbert P. Hyatt, who had made money from technology patents, had moved to Nevada and whether he owed taxes in California.

“They invaded his property rights,” Erwin Chemerinsky, a lawyer for Mr. Hyatt, said of the officials’ investigation of his client. “They defamed him. They also revealed private information about him to a large audience.”

Mr. Hyatt sued California in state court in Nevada over that conduct, and he won a large jury award that was later reduced to $100,000.

Allowing such a lawsuit violated the Constitution, said Seth P. Waxman, a lawyer for the California tax authorities. The people who debated the ratification of the Constitution, he said, “were unanimous in their understanding that states could not be sued in the courts of other states.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said there was a problem with that argument. “It’s nice that they felt that way,” she said, “but what we know is they didn’t put it in the Constitution.”

Mr. Waxman said the very structure and history of the Constitution supported his position. But several justices seemed to be looking for something more.

“We are all always very vigilant not to read things into the Constitution that can’t be found in the text,” Justice Alito said.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh asked Mr. Waxman why the drafters of the Constitution would have left such an important principle unstated.

“The Constitution is a document, in my view, of majestic specificity,” Justice Kavanaugh said. “It’s got a lot of specific details on very minute things, and this issue, which you say rightly is so important, but then somehow was not mentioned in the text of the Constitution.”

Mr. Waxman said that allowing suits like Mr. Hyatt’s was a grave violation of state sovereignty. Justice Sotomayor responded that it would also harm states if the Supreme Court were to limit the ability of their citizens to go to court when they were injured.

Mr. Chemerinsky, who is the dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, said there was no good reason to overrule the 1979 precedent, Nevada v. Hall. “There is nothing,” he said, “that is changed since this was argued to this court in 1979.”

More than 40 states filed a supporting brief urging the justices to overrule the decision. Justice Sotomayor told Mr. Waxman that those states should look elsewhere for relief.

“Why don’t they move to get the Constitution amended if we’re getting it wrong?” she asked. “You’re asking us to do their work.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recuperating from cancer surgery, was not present for the argument. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said she would participate in the court’s consideration of the case by reading the briefs and the argument transcript.

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