WASHINGTON --State-owned railroads may be sued in state court, even though federal law does not specifically allow such suits, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The court's 6-to-2 ruling departed from the court's recent practice of requiring Congress to state clearly whether it intends to make states liable under federal law, drawing a spirited dissent from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"The court's decision in this case is an example of the truism that hard cases make bad law," Justice O'Connor said. She added that the court had upset the balance of power between states and the federal government.
The case, Hilton v. South Carolina Public Railways Commission, arose when Kenneth Hilton, an employee of the commission, alleged he was injured in the course of his work because of the commission's negligence.
He sued the commission under the Federal Employers' Liability Act of 1908. The South Carolina trial court dismissed the case, ruling that the liability law does not authorize suits against an agency of the state, even if the suit is brought in a state court. The state supreme court also threw out the case after ruling earlier in a similar dispute that the federal law does not subject states to liability in state court suits.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court said previous precedent bound it to overturn the South Carolina rulings. Citing Parden v. Terminal Railway of Alabama Docks Department, a 1964 case, the court in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy said Congress intended to include state-owned railroads among the list of employers subject to the liability law.
The 1908 statute covers "every common carrier by railroad," but does not distinguish between private railroads and railroads run by states.
Justice Kennedy noted that if the court were to overturn its Parden precedent, many workers would be left without adequate protection. He said workers' compensation law in "many states" exclude railroad employees from their coverage because of an assumption that the federal liability law provides sufficient protection.
Justice Kennedy then turned attention to the issue of whether Congress can make the states subject to lawsuits. The court acknowledged Congress can abrogate the constitutional rights of states to be immune from suits in federal court only after specifically stating its intention in the laws it writes. The Constitution's 11th Amendment generally shields states from federal lawsuits without their consent.
"But as we have stated on many occasions, the 11th Amendment does not apply in state courts," Justice Kennedy said.
Justice O'Connor, the court's leading protector of state autonomy, said the court had contorted what the justices have come to call the "clear statement" doctrine, a rule the court has used in recent cases to strike down the applicability of federal laws to states and their agencies.
Justice O'Connor, who was joined in dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia, said that in a number of cases stretching back to 1985, the court has consistently said that "if Congress intends tof upset the usual constitutional balance between the states and the federal government, it must make its intention to do so unmistakably clear."