A mortgage company is asking the Supreme Court to decide whether state judges may reinterpret rules issued by federal regulators.
At issue is an Alabama law that limits fees lenders may charge consumers to 5% of a loan's value.
The Alabama statute exempts any lender authorized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide federally insured mortgages. Several other states have similar laws.
United Companies Lending Corp. assumed it was exempt from the Alabama cap because it is a HUD-authorized guaranteed lender.
United was sued after it charged nearly $3,000 in fees to Michael and Joyce McGehee in 1991 on a $32,000 mortgage.
The Alabama Supreme Court sided with the McGehees in October, ruling tht United had broken the state law. The court declared that HUD had only authorized United's corporate headquarters in Louisiana to offer guaranteed mortgages. The McGehees got their loan from United's Mobile, Ala., field office.
The ruling directly contradicted HUD policy, which bestows a single, corporatewide authorization on a lender.
In its petition to the Supreme Court, United argued that the U.S. Constitution requires states to defer to federal agencies unless their rule interpretations are arbitrary or clearly erroneous. According to United's brief, that exception does not apply to HUD in this case.
The lender also argued that state judges must independently evaluate the propriety of regulations before overturning them. That never was done in the Alabama dispute, it said.
"In this case, the state court couldn't care at all what the agency said," United lawyer Lawrence E. Platt said. "It superimposed its own meaning without trying to analyze the propriety of the federal agency's interpretation."
United told the Supreme Court that the Alabama decision violates its right to due process. The company never had an opportunity to avoid liability because it could not have anticipated that Alabama courts would interpret the law differently than HUD had done.
"People have a right to know what conduct is prohibited," said Mr. Platt, a partner in the Washington office of the Kirkpatrick and Lockhart law firm.
Moreover, the lender argued, the Supreme Court has a duty to void any state court decision that directly contradicts federal law.
"The Alabama decision, which is interwoven with, if not completely based on, federal law must be reversed to the extent it misinterpreted federal law," the lender said in its brief.
In its final argument, United appealed to the justices' desire for sound public policy.
It argued that Congress is increasingly giving the states greater authority to enforce federal laws.
The Supreme Court could avoid scores of disputes if it rules that state judges must adhere to agency interpretations, United said.
Lawyers for Mr. and Ms. McGehee are to file their rebuttal brief next month.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide in late spring whether to hear the case.