“If there were no revising authority to control these jarring and discordant judgments and harmonize them into uniformity, the laws, the treaties, and the Constitution of the United States would be different in different States.
“The public mischiefs that would attend such a State of things would be truly deplorable.”
— Justice Joseph Story
Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 1816
The Supreme Court of the United States issued several decisions at the end of January. None of them dealt with particularly sensitive social or legal issues and none garnered very much press, particularly in the midst of the media frenzy surrounding a presidential election. Among those decisions was one with the exceedingly unremarkable name of James v. Boise, a case with unremarkable facts and a seemingly unremarkable four-paragraph decision.
The case is a legal jungle. It began with a civil rights action brought against the Boise Police Department. The statute authorizing that lawsuit is a federal one, but it creates a cause of action that can be brought in state courts. Thus, this was an action based on federal law, but brought in the state courts of Idaho.
The Idaho courts ruled in favor of the Boise Police Department and even ordered James to pay attorney fees in the case. The attorney fees issue was appealed all the way to the Idaho Supreme Court. There, James pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled that in order to require a plaintiff in a civil rights action to pay attorney fees, the court had to determine that the lawsuit was “frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation.” That determination wasn’t made, and so James said the award of attorney fees should be overturned.
As it turns out, the Idaho Supreme Court doesn’t particularly like that holding of the U.S. Supreme Court. Idaho law is different than federal law, and the Idaho Supremes thumbed their noses at the High Court in Washington. To be clear, they admitted that the U.S. Supreme Court has the final word on federal law. They admitted that the U.S. Supreme Court can tell lower federal courts what to do. They even admitted that the U.S. Supreme Court can tell state courts how to interpret federal issues. This situation, though, was different, according to the Idaho Supreme Court. Here, they argued that the earlier decision of the U.S. Supreme Court had come from a lower federal court case in a different district and so it was not binding on them.
The issue is much larger than it appears, however. Just last month, Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court ordered probate judges in Alabama to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses until the Alabama Supreme Court rules on the issue. His order directly contravenes Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court decision from last June that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Moore used the same logic as the Idaho Supreme Court — that Obergefell doesn’t apply in Alabama because it was a case arising from lower federal court decisions in other jurisdictions (including Ohio).
Not only did the U.S. Supreme Court slap the argument down, they dismissed it soundly and unanimously. Rather than have a single justice author an opinion under their name, the U.S. Supreme Court decided James v. Boise in a per curiam decision — an unsigned opinion that comes from the Court as a whole. Per curiam decisions are generally unanimous and usually used where the issue is very minor or where, like here, the Court appears to be sending a message that there is no disagreement amongst the Justices on the issue before them. They stand as a whole and author the decision as a whole.
Indeed, they could not have been clearer here. The opinion states, “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.” If that message wasn’t clear enough, the opinion ends by saying, “The Idaho Supreme Court, like any other state or federal court, is bound by this Court’s interpretation of federal law.”
The nine members of the High Court were sharply, sharply divided when they authored the opinion and dissents in Obergefell last summer. But they appear to be quite clear and in agreement that once the Court has spoken on a federal issue, individual state courts have no authority to ignore their decisions and apply federal law 50 different ways. Justice Story made that clear exactly 200 years ago and the nine Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have repeated it clearly now. How that will play out as Alabama and other states apply Obergefell or other controversial Supreme Court decisions has yet to be seen.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Common Pleas Court.