Federal Attorney’s Fees Statute Means What SCOTUS Says It Means: Slapping Down the Idaho Supreme Court
It is hard to believe in this day and age that a state Supreme Court thinks it can advance its own interpretation of federal law contrary to an interpretation by the United States Supreme Court. But that’s exactly what happened in James v. Boise (No. 15-493), handed down on January 25, 2016.
In a terse per curiam decision, the Supreme Court slapped down the Idaho Supreme Court and declared that its interpretation of 42 U.S.C. section 1988, the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act, governed.
Recall that section 1988 provides that “a reasonable attorney’s fee” should be awarded to “the prevailing party” in a section 1983 suit. In Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5 (1980)(per curiam), the Supreme Court, relying on the clear legislative history, interpreted this language as creating a double standard: a prevailing plaintiff is ordinarily entitled to fees but a prevailing defendant is only entitled to fees where the plaintiff’s suit was “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” See chapter 10 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2015)(West).
However, in the James case, which arose in the Idaho courts, the Idaho Supreme Court expressly rejected this interpretation of section 1988 as applied to prevailing defendants when section 1983 claims are brought in state courts.
Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court reversed. Giving the Idaho Supreme Court a lesson from the basic course in constitutional law, the Supreme Court cited Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 1 Wheat. 304 (1816), for the proposition that Supreme Court interpretations of federal law are the supreme law of the land. They trump any contrary state court interpretations.
It quoted Rivers v. Roadway Express, Inc., 511 U.S. 298, 314 (1994): “It is this Court’s responsibility to say what a [federal] statute means, and once the Court has spoken, it is the duty of other courts to respect that understanding of the governing rule of law.”
There is no need to comment on this decision. Res ipsa loquitor.
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