No Oral Argument
Whether a state legislature can pass a tax-increasing budget by a simple majority vote, at the direction of the state supreme court, despite the existence of a state constitutional provision that requires a two-thirds majority to raise taxes.
In the 1990s Nevada voters approved state initiatives that required any state tax increases to be approved by two-thirds of the legislature. Any bill that “creates, generates, or increases any public revenue in any form, including but not limited to taxes,” must meet the two-thirds threshold in both houses for approval. Article 11 of the Nevada Constitution, however, requires the state legislature to provide funding for the state’s public schools. When the Nevada legislature failed to pass a budget in 2003 because it could not reach the two-thirds requirement, the governor petitioned the state supreme court to issue a writ of mandamus to the legislature directing it “to proceed expeditiously” to pass a bill to fund public schools by simple majority vote. The “substantive” Article 11 funding requirements for public schools trumps the procedural two-thirds tax increase requirement, the state court ruled in Guinn v. Nevada, 119 Nev. 277 (Nev., 2003). The legislature subsequently followed the state court’s direction and passed the funding by simple majority vote.
Sharron Angle and other opposition legislators, voters, and taxpayers filed suit in federal court, seeking an injunction against the law. They argued that the passage of the bill by simple majority rather than two-thirds vote diluted the weight of the legislator votes, and it deprived the voters of the representation to which they were entitled under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment, as well as the Republican Guarantee Clause. Named as defendants were several members of the Nevada legislature, the governor and lieutenant governor, and various Nevada government officials charged with implementing legislation enacted by the Nevada legislature.
The Court Below
The U.S. District Court for Nevada was the first to hear the case, but dismissed it because the court itself lacked jurisdiction—according to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, federal district courts must hear original cases only and cannot review state court decisions. The plaintiffs also “failed to state a claim” or allege an injury, a requirement for standing and needed to proceed to the merits of the case. See opinion below:
Angle v. Legislature of the State of Nevada, 274 F.Supp.2d 1152 (D. Nevada, 2003)
The plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the lower court ruling. In addition, the court held that since the budget had been (by this time) passed by two-thirds vote, the case was moot, thus creating another hurdle of justiciability barring a hearing on the merits. The plaintiffs nonetheless appealed. See opinion below:
Amodei v. Nevada State Senate, 99 Fed.Appx. 90, No. 03-16326 (9th Cir., 2004)
The Supreme Court did not hear the case, instead simply denying the writ of certiorari. See denial below:
Angle v. Legislature of the State of Nevada, 125 S.Ct. 1060 (2005)
Question before the Court
No question listed at the Supreme Court.
John Eastman of CCJ was counsel for the plaintiffs and submitted a reply in support of the petition for the writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court.
Addressing the justiciability of the case, and in favor of Angle and the other petitioners who wanted to maintain the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases, CCJ argued that all of the petitioners indeed had suffered an injury and had standing in the federal judiciary, and it argued that despite the passage of the budget, the claims were not moot and should proceed on the merits. In addition, CCJ argued that the defendants were not immune from the suit, as they contended, nor should the Supreme Court deny certiorari.
The legislators, the voters, and the taxpayers who brought suit all have standing. Because there are a sufficient number of legislator-plaintiffs to have prevented the passage of the simple majority bill, the legislators indeed had suffered an injury by having the weight of their votes diluted. More than one-third of the members of the House and Senate are plaintiffs in this case, and they could have prevented the passage of the bill had the state constitution not been circumvented. Voter-plaintiffs also have standing. Voters who opposed tax increases had their representation diluted by decreasing the legislative voting threshold for tax increases, and those in favor of the tax increase had their representation enhanced. Finally, the taxpayer-plaintiffs themselves suffered a similar injury: the proposed tax increase was imminent, and so their claims qualified for “declaratory relief” from the Court; and because the taxpayer-plaintiffs are also voters, they have standing like the voter-plaintiffs.
The plaintiff’s requests for relief are not moot. Violations of the two-thirds threshold, the 14th Amendment, and the Republican Guarantee Clause can continue in later circumstances if not prohibited immediately. The simple-majority tax bill died at the end of the legislative session, but the Nevada Supreme Court’s ruling was a permanent interpretation of the state constitution. Simple majority votes on some tax bills are now constitutional according to the state court, despite the clear constitutional requirement for two-thirds majority.
Although the Supreme Court has a long-standing and general policy of “avoiding the revisiting and overturning of a state supreme court’s interpretation of its own state constitution,” this egregious disregard of the Nevada constitution presents a rare exception. The federal Constitution guarantees to the people of each state certain rights that cannot be infringed, despite state constitutional interpretations by state courts to the contrary.
The Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari, and so the lower court rulings remained in place. Thus the judiciary rejected CCJ’s argument that the claims were not moot, and it rejected CCJ’s argument that members of the Nevada Assembly had suffered a “sufficiently concrete injury to support federal jurisdiction over their vote dilution claim.”