Conservative SCOTUS majority overturns 40-year-old precedent in sovereign immunity case

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With the makeup of the Supreme Court now leaning toward the right with a 5-4 conservative majority, it was predicted that the court would be more likely to issue rulings that are in line with the plain text of the U.S. Constitution.

That appears to be true with regard to the court’s recent 5-4 ruling in the case of Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt, which overturned a prior decision from 40 years ago that the current court held was inconsistent with the principle of states’ sovereign immunity.

Overturning precedent

The high court ruled on Monday that a state could not be sued by a private party in a different state unless it had first consented to be sued.

That decision reversed a 1979 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Nevada v. Hall, which declared that the Constitution offered no protection to individual states from private lawsuits originating in other states.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision. The four liberal justices were led in their dissenting opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer.

The liberal justices felt that prior court precedent should have been left alone and criticized the conservatives for overturning of a past ruling by a slim 5-4 majority, revealing their deeper concern that other longstanding precedents could be overturned in the future by a similarly narrow margin.

Thomas’ majority opinion

In the majority opinion, Thomas wrote that the 1979 ruling “misreads the historical record and misapprehends the ‘implicit ordering of relationships within the federal system necessary to make the Constitution a workable governing charter and to give each provision within that document the full effect intended by the Framers.'”

With regard to the precedent set in that case, Thomas wrote that it was “irreconcilable with our constitutional structure and with the historical evidence” which showed that states did enjoy sovereign immunity from private lawsuits

Broader implications?

The case at the heart of the court’s decision involved a dispute between a microchip inventor named Gilbert Hyatt who lived in Nevada and sued the California Franchise Tax Board in 1992.

Hyatt’s suit demanded that the tax agency compensate him for damages resulting from an audit it conducted on suspicion that Hyatt had moved from California to Nevada in order to avoid paying the state’s personal income tax. Hyatt alleged that the board shared personal information about him with business associates and unconstitutionally invaded his privacy.

This was actually the third time this particular case found its way to the Supreme Court, but it will almost assuredly be the last.

Now that the court has overturned its own prior ruling and found that Hyatt had no right to sue California from a Nevada courtroom absent its consent, liberal activists are left worrying about which other precedents may be vulnerable under fresh review.

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