498 U.S. 439 (1990), No. 89-1555

Citation:498 U.S. 439, 111 S.Ct. 865, 112 L.Ed.2d 969, 59 U.S.L.W. 4117
Party Name:No. 89-1555
Case Date:February 20, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 439

498 U.S. 439 (1990)

111 S.Ct. 865, 112 L.Ed.2d 969, 59 U.S.L.W. 4117

No. 89-1555

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 20, 1991

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF NEBRASKA

Syllabus

Petitioner motor carrier filed suit in a Nebraska trial court, claiming, inter alia, that certain "retaliatory" taxes and fees the State imposed on motor carriers and vehicles such as his, which are registered in other States but operate in Nebraska, constituted an unlawful burden on interstate commerce and that respondents were liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Among other things, the court concluded that the taxes and fees violated the Commerce Clause and permanently enjoined respondents from assessing, levying, or collecting them; but it dismissed petitioner's § 1983 claim. The State Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal, holding that there is no cause of action under § 1983 for Commerce Clause violations because the Clause allocates power between the State and Federal Governments, and does not establish individual rights against the government.

Held: Suits for violations of the Commerce Clause may be brought under § 1983. Pp. 443-451.

(a) A broad construction of § 1983 is compelled by the statutory language, which speaks of deprivations of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws." It is also supported by § 1983's legislative history and by this Court's decisions, which have rejected attempts to limit the types of constitutional rights that are encompassed within the phrase "rights, privileges, or immunities," see, e.g., Lynch v. Household Finance Corp., 405 U.S. 538. Pp. 443-446.

(b) The Commerce Clause confers "rights, privileges, or immunities" within the meaning of § 1983. In addition to conferring power on the Federal Government, the Clause is a substantive restriction on permissible state regulation of interstate commerce. And individuals injured by state action violating this aspect of the Clause may sue and obtain injunctive and declaratory relief. The three considerations for determining whether a federal statute confers a "right" within the meaning of § 1983 -- that the provision creates obligations binding on the governmental unit, that the plaintiff's interest is not too vague and amorphous to be beyond the judiciary's competence to enforce, and that the provision was intended to benefit the plaintiff -- also weigh in favor of recognition of a right under the Clause. Respondents' argument that the Clause was not designed to benefit the individual has been implicitly [111 S.Ct. 867] rejected,

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Boston Stock Exchange v. State Tax Comm'n, 429 U.S. 318, 321, n. 3, and this Court's repeated references to "rights" under the Clause constitute a recognition that it was intended to benefit those who are engaged in interstate commerce, see, e.g., Crutcher v. Kentucky, 141 U.S. 47, 57. Respondents' attempt to analogize the Commerce Clause to the Supremacy Clause, which does not confer "rights, privileges, or immunities" under § 1983, is also rejected. Unlike the Commerce Clause, the Supremacy Clause is not a source of federal rights, but merely secures federal rights by according them priority when they come into conflict with state law. The fact that the protection from interference with trade conferred by the Commerce Clause may be qualified or eliminated by Congress does not mean that it cannot be a "right," for, until Congress does so, such protection operates as a guarantee of freedom for private conduct that the State may not abridge. Pp. 446-451.

234 Neb. 427, 451 N.W.2d 676, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., joined, post, p. 451.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether suits for violations of the Commerce Clause may be brought under 93 Stat. 1284, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. We hold that they may.

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I

Petitioner does business as an unincorporated motor carrier with his principal place of business in Ohio. He owns tractors and trailers that are registered in Ohio and operated in several States, including Nebraska. On December 17, 1984, he filed a class action suit in a Nebraska trial court challenging the constitutionality of certain "retaliatory" taxes and fees imposed by the State of Nebraska on motor carriers with vehicles registered in other States and operated in Nebraska.[1] In his complaint, petitioner claimed, inter alia, that the taxes and fees constituted an unlawful burden on interstate commerce and that respondents were liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Petitioner sought declaratory and injunctive relief, refunds of all retaliatory taxes and fees paid, and attorney's fees and costs.

After a bench trial based on stipulated facts, the court concluded that the taxes and fees at issue violated the Commerce Clause

because they are imposed only on motor carriers whose vehicles are registered outside the State of Nebraska, while no comparable tax or fee is imposed on carriers whose vehicles are registered in the State of Nebraska.

App. to Pet. for Cert. 29a. It therefore permanently enjoined respondents from "assessing, levying, or collecting" the taxes and fees. Id. at 30a. The court also held that petitioner was entitled to attorney's fees and expenses under the equitable "common fund" doctrine. The court, however, entered judgment for respondents on the [111 S.Ct. 868] remaining claims, including the § 1983 claim. Petitioner appealed the dismissal

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of his § 1983 claim, and respondents cross-appealed the trial court's allowance of attorney's fees and expenses under the common fund doctrine. Respondents did not however, appeal the trial court's determination that the retaliatory taxes and fees violated the Commerce Clause.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska affirmed the dismissal of petitioner's § 1983 claim, but reversed the trial court's allowance of fees and expenses under the common fund doctrine. See Dennis v. State, 234 Neb. 427, 451 N.W.2d 676 (1990). With respect to the § 1983 claim, the Nebraska Supreme Court held that "[d]espite the broad language of § 1983 . . . there is no cause of action under § 1983 for violations of the commerce clause." Id. at 430, 451 N.W.2d at 678. The court relied largely on the reasoning in Consolidated Freightways Corp. of Delaware v. Kassel, 730 F.2d 1139 (CA8), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 834 (1984), which held that claims under the Commerce Clause are not cognizable under § 1983 because, among other things, "the Commerce Clause does not establish individual rights against government, but instead allocates power between the state and federal governments." 730 F.2d at 1144.

As the Supreme Court of Nebraska recognized, see 234 Neb. at 430, 451 N.W.2d at 678, there is a division of authority on the question whether claims for violations of the Commerce Clause may be brought under § 1983.[2] We granted certiorari to resolve this issue, 495 U.S. 956 (1990), and we now reverse.

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II

A broad construction of § 1983[3] is compelled by the statutory language, which speaks of deprivations of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws." (Emphasis added.) Accordingly, we have "repeatedly held that the coverage of [§ 1983] must be broadly construed." Golden State Transit Corp. v. Los Angeles, 493 U.S. 103, 105 (1989). The legislative history of the section also stresses that, as a remedial statute, it should be "`liberally and beneficently construed.'" Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 684 (1978) (quoting Rep. Shellabarger, Cong.Globe, 42d Cong., 1st Sess., App. 68 (1871)).[4]

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[111 S.Ct. 869] As respondents argue, the "prime focus" of § 1983 and related provisions was to ensure "a right of action to enforce the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment and the federal

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laws enacted pursuant thereto," Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Organization, 441 U.S. 600, 611 (1979), but the Court has never restricted the section's scope to the effectuation of that goal. Rather, we have given full effect to its broad language, recognizing that § 1983 "provide[s] a remedy, to be broadly construed, against all forms of official violation of federally protected rights." Monell, supra, at 700-701. Thus, for example, we have refused to limit the phrase "and laws" in § 1983 to civil rights or equal protection [111 S.Ct. 870] laws. See Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 4, 6-8 (1980).

Even more relevant to this case, we have rejected attempts to limit the types of constitutional rights that are encompassed within the phrase "rights, privileges, or immunities." For example, in Lynch v. Household Finance Corp., 405 U.S. 538 (1972), we refused to limit the phrase to "personal" rights, as opposed to "property" rights.[5] We first

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noted that neither the words nor the legislative history of the statute distinguished between personal and property rights. Id. at 543. We also rejected that distinction because of the "virtual impossibility" of applying it, particularly in "mixed" cases involving both types of rights. Id. at 550-551. We further concluded that

the dichotomy between personal liberties and property rights is a false one. . . . The right to enjoy property without unlawful deprivation, no less than the right to speak or the right to travel, is, in truth, a "personal" right, whether the "property" in question be a welfare check, a home, or a savings account.

Id. at 552. See also United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787, 800-806 (1966).

Petitioner contends that the Commerce Clause confers...

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