Nahmod Law

Haywood v. Drown: Close Call for the Supremacy Clause?

The Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Haywood v. Drown was a surprisingly close decision that pitted the Supremacy Clause against federalism, with the former barely winning.

The Decision

Haywood v. Drown, 129 S. Ct. 2108 (2009), dealt with a New York statute that provided that New York courts did not have jurisdiction to hear any claims for damages against correctional officials sued in their personal capacities for acts committed within the scope of their employment, while allowing the State to be sued under state law in its Court of Claims for such claims. The Court of Appeals of New York had ruled that New York courts lacked jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff inmate’s two § 1983 complaints seeking damages against correctional officers. This did not violate the Supremacy Clause because the relevant New York statute did not discriminate against federal causes of action but covered all such claims, whether based on state or federal law. This provision was “neutral” for Supremacy Clause purposes, according to the Court of Appeals: “New York courts necessarily adjudicate only state claims brought against the state and federal courts adjudicate only federal causes of action brought against individuals.”

The Supreme Court reversed in an opinion by Justice Stevens and held that the New York statute violated the Supremacy Clause. “[F]ederal law is as much the law of the several States as are the laws passed by their legislatures.” There was such a strong presumption of concurrent jurisdiction that it was only defeated when Congress ousted state courts of jurisdiction or when a state adopted a neutral rule as to the administration of its courts. In the latter situation, a state had substantial leeway but could not effectively nullify a federal cause of action just because it thought the federal cause of action was inconsistent with state policy. Here, the New York policy of shielding correctional officials from the burdens of litigation was inconsistent with the § 1983 policy of providing a federal cause of action against all persons who violated a person’s constitutional or federal statutory rights under color of law. Also, congestion of state courts was not a sufficient justification for “declaring a whole category of federal claims to be frivolous.”

Moreover, New York’s equal treatment of federal and state law claims against correctional officers did not necessarily mean that the statute was constitutional: nondiscrimination standing alone was not the equivalent of neutrality. The Court emphatically rejected Justice Thomas’s argument in dissent that “States have unfettered authority to determine whether their local courts may entertain a federal cause of action.” In the Court’s view, therefore, the New York statute involved much more than a state’s establishing the structure and jurisdiction of its own courts. Since New York courts would continue to hear “the lion’s share” of all other § 1938 actions, the statute was “effectively an immunity statute cloaked in jurisdictional garb.” For all these reasons, the statute violated the Supremacy Clause.

The Four Dissenters

Justice Thomas dissented. He wrote for himself in making an originalist argument against the majority’s reasoning and conclusion, including the Court’s incorporation of an antidiscrimination principle into the Supremacy clause. However, he was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Alito in arguing that the Court had improperly interpreted and applied the Court’s decisions to require more than equality of treatment for neutrality.

A Close Decision

Haywood was a surprisingly close decision. Nevertheless, it follows in a straightforward way from Howlett v. Rose, 110 S. Ct. 2430 (1990) and stands for the proposition that equality of treatment of federal and state claims is not enough to insulate a state statute from Supremacy Clause invalidation where the federal claims are burdened and the policies underlying the state statute are inconsistent with federal policy. Haywood is thus analogous to the Court’s notice of claim decision in Felder v. Casey, 108 S. Ct. 2302 (1988), which held that a state’s four-month notice of claim statute, applicable generally to suits against local governments and their officers, did not govern state court § 1983 claims by virtue of the Supremacy Clause.

Had Haywood come out the other way, states could have, for example, legislated against state court jurisdiction over claims against law enforcement officers, much as New York attempted to do for claims against correctional officers. True, the federal courts would still available to plaintiffs with such federal claims, but the Supremacy Clause means that plaintiffs with federal claims should not be precluded from initially filing in state court if they choose to do so.

Written by snahmod

September 4, 2009 at 12:00 pm

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