A showdown over scope of federal powers

US Supreme Court, with a track record of siding with states, faces key

An overtime pay dispute between probation officers and the State of Maine is the next major battleground in a conservative crusade at the US Supreme Court to rein in the power of the federal government.

Arguments are scheduled tomorrow in a case that some legal analysts say could result in one of the most significant federalism decisions of the 1990s. It is a legal showdown that is much anticipated among conservatives, who see the court as restoring the nation to its proper constitutional order.

Liberals and the court's own moderate justices denounce the court's state-sovereignty agenda as a form of unbridled judicial activism from the right. How far the conservatives are prepared to go is unclear. But the Maine case will offer critical clues.

On one level, at stake is roughly $1 million in back pay that workers say they are owed from the state treasury. But the much larger issue is whether Maine - or any state - may be forced to stand trial in its own state courts on charges that the state government violated a federal law.

Lawyers for the workers argue that federal labor law is the supreme law of the land and the state must enforce it and obey it.

Lawyers for the state counter that Congress overstepped its authority in inviting private citizens to sue states under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Congress intruded into an area of law that should have been reserved exclusively for states, they argue.

"The [workers' lawyers] contend that under the supremacy clause, federal law trumps any contrary state law. This is true, of course, when the federal law is valid," writes Maine State Solicitor Peter Brann in his brief to the court. "We contend that the principles of federalism embodied in the history, structure, and language of the Constitution ineluctably leads to the conclusion that this federal law is not valid."

The Clinton Labor Department and the US solicitor general have entered the case on the side of the workers. "This court has never permitted a state to insulate itself from the effective operation of a valid federal law, and it should not do so here," the government's brief says.

Some legal analysts are concerned that if the court upholds Maine's position it could encourage states to avoid enforcing a wide range of federal laws.

"We don't know what the next step is," says Donald Fontaine, a lawyer in Portland, Maine, who argued the case in state courts. "If they make this giant leap, the next leap isn't quite as big."

Other analysts say the case is not about avoiding enforcement of laws, but respecting state sovereignty. "A state is supposed to have a special standing in our system," says Anne Hayes of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

"If the federal government and Congress can subject the states to private suits, it is a severe encroachment," she says.

High court history

Since 1990, the conservative wing of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist has issued a series of decisions in federalism cases, which limit the reach of the federal government and enhancing the power of states. The decisions uphold a concept of dual sovereignty.

The basic idea is that if Congress wants state or local officials to do something, it must either ask them or encourage them to do it. But Congress may not order them to do it.

The decisions cover a wide range of activities, including striking down an attempt by Congress to force states to use a particular means to dispose of nuclear waste, finding a federal law banning guns near schools was an improper extension of Congress's power to regulate commerce, and ruling that a federal law requiring local police to conduct background investigations prior to gun sales was an improper extension of congressional authority at the expense of the states.

In addition, in 1996 the court ruled that the Seminole tribe in Florida was barred by the US Constitution from filing a federal claim in federal court against the Florida governor. The federal claim was aimed at forcing then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to negotiate a plan to allow the Seminoles to set up on-reservation gambling.

The majority reasoned that there is no authority under the Constitution for private parties to sue a state under federal law in federal court. The decision caused the wholesale dismissal of federal claims against states nationwide.

And it raised the next logical question. If you can't sue a state in federal court, could a plaintiff bring the same federal suit against a state in a state court?

That is exactly what happened in the Maine case. When the workers' federal suit against the state was thrown out of federal court after the 1996 Seminole tribe decision, the workers refiled their federal suit in state court.

Relying on past rulings

A Maine judge, and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, threw the suit out citing the same principles of federalism raised in the Seminole tribe case. They ruled that if a plaintiff can't seek damages against a state for violations of federal law in a federal court, a plaintiff couldn't seek damages in state court either.

The workers' lawyers and the US solicitor general argue that there is no constitutional bar to prevent such suits in state court. And, they say, if the court upholds the Maine decisions, the workers will be left without any means of seeking redress of their grievances other than urging the Labor Department to take action against the state.

Thirty-seven states and various state and local government associations have filed briefs supporting Maine's position.

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