Local Government Issues Figure Prominently In Upcoming Supreme Court Term


An article in the August 26 edition of the National Association of Counties’ County News predicts that next term of the United States Supreme Court will be important to local governments as there are already several key cases set for argument and the Court is continuing to accept case petitions through February.  The article highlights several of the cases likely to concern county governments.

Town of Greece v. Galloway

Issue:  Legislative Prayer Practices

The Town of Greece, New York, followed the fairly common policy of allowing a person of any or no denomination to conduct an opening prayer at its Town Board meetings.  The Town did not preview or approve the prayer in advance.  However, the 2nd Circuit declared the Town’s practice a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.  The Court’s holding could affect the longstanding prayer practices of many local governments.

Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action v. Township of Mount Holly

Issue:  Redevelopment Plans and the Fair Housing Act

The question presented by this case is whether a policy or action (here, a plan to redevelop a low-income minority neighborhood in New Jersey) that disproportionately affects a protected class of citizens without intentionally discriminating on the basis of race or other factors can also give rise to a Fair Housing Act (FHA) claim. Because redevelopment plans frequently, though unintentionally, can have disparate impacts on minorities, Mount Holly could expose cities and other local governments to increased liability.

McCullen v. Coakley

Issue:  Protest Buffer Zones

The case involves a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot protest and demonstration buffer zone around abortion clinics.  However, if the Court decides the issue broadly, the constitutionality of similar buffers for clinics, funerals, political gatherings, and other events could be called into question or even overturned.

Madigan v. Levin

Issue:  Proper Procedure for Age Discrimination Claims

The Court will decide whether an age discrimination claimant must follow the procedures of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prior to initiating a lawsuit.  The ADEA contains provisions designed to encourage informal resolution between the two parties.  If the Court holds that a claimant may bypass the ADEA, county governments could be subject to increased liability and litigation costs.

Sprint Communications Company v. Jacobs

Issue:  Federal Court Abstention (when can a federal court hear a case)

This case arose out of a telecommunications dispute in Iowa. Sprint refused to pay another company’s intrastate access charge for a service and asked the Iowa Utility Board (IUB) for confirmation that it was under no obligation to do so. The IUB ordered Sprint to pay, and Sprint challenged the IUB’s decision in U.S. district and state courts simultaneously.

The 8th Circuit ruled that the district court should not hear the case until the state court review of the IUB decision was complete — if at all — citing the so-called “Younger abstention doctrine,” which requires that a federal court abstain to avoid interfering with a pending state court case.

The Court will decide whether Younger abstention applies to “remedial proceedings,” which includes not only the IUB approval, but many county-level proceedings like zoning variances.  If the Court decides that the Younger abstention does not apply, then claimants may challenge county proceedings immediately in federal court, regardless of whether any state court proceedings have been concluded.

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