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Sam Heldman


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Thursday, October 17, 2002
No. 01-1229 Pierce County v. Guillen

Here is another states' rights case. I say "another" despite the fact that it's the first one I have written about here because the court has been taking a few of these every year. The case is about federal funds for improving dangerous intersections. Rather, the case is about states' rights, but arises in the federal funds for dangerous intersections context.

At some point, Congress decided that states should compile data on potentially dangerous intersections and railroad crossings, and that they could apply to the federal government for grants to fix these intersections. With a mighty "Woo hoo!" plaintiff's lawyers lined up to get the documents wherein the state essentially admits that intersections are dangerous, and sought out people injured in accidents at those locations so they could sue the states involved. Congress scratched its proverbial head and said, "Er, we hadn't thought of that, how about if we make it so those records can't be discovered in federal or state courts?"

And so they did. State courts were a little reluctant to interpret the prohibition too broadly, so a number of courts held that while any information specifically compiled in order to apply for one of these highway grants was not discoverable, information (like accident reports) that was just collected for that purpose was still discoverable. Congress, in turn, amended the law to say, "No, we meant compiled or collected, this means YOU state courts who have ruled otherwise."*

    * Note that the quotes are being used for rhetorical purposes. Congress didn't actually collectively or in legislation say these things, although they did insert "or collected" into the law.

So, along come some plaintiffs whose family members died at intersections that Washington has applied for a federal grant to improve. The Washington Supreme Court decided that the federal law specifically preempted state law with regard to the discoverability of documents and that the law was intended and did cover the accident reports sought by the plaintiffs. The court found, however, that the law was not a valid exercise of the Spending Clause.

The Washington Supreme Court is flat out wrong on this. The court stated, "United States Supreme Court has made it clear that
Congress may [attach strings to federal money] only if those "strings" are also firmly "attached" to
a legitimate federal interest in a specific federal project or program," citing South Dakota v. Dole. As my Civil Procedure professor warned in the first few days of first year classes, "Beware when a court says something is "clear," usually that is a warning that what follows is not at all clear." Looking at the specific page of Dole that the court cites, we find the following in note 3: "[W]e do not address whether conditions less directly related to the particular purpose of the expenditure might be outside the bounds of the spending power." Thus, not only did the Court fail to make it "clear" that strings must be "firmly attached," they expressly declined to decide the level of attachedness necessary. Sorry Washington Supreme Court, you should get a cite checker.

The Court will REVERSE because the law is valid under the Spending Clause.

The Court will not need to reach the Washington Supreme Court's "analysis" of the Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause arguments and so neither will I, except to say that they are only slightly less wrong than its Spending Clause analysis.

There is also a question about whether individual plaintiffs have standing to raise a state's rights argument where the state participates in the federal funding program voluntarily. Without doing too much thinking about it, I will predict that the Court will find that the plaintiffs had standing to raise these issues, taking the chance that if this is DIGged, I will suffer a wrong prediction.