NLC Tracks Cases Important to Local Governments

By Tabin, Barrie | Nation's Cities Weekly, October 31, 1994 | Go to article overview
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NLC Tracks Cases Important to Local Governments


Tabin, Barrie, Nation's Cities Weekly


The following report is an overview of cases in which NLC has participated by filing an amicus or friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court or one of the lower courts, or cases in which NLC did not file a brief, but in which the outcome of the case win have an impact on cities and towns.

SUPREME COURT PENDING CASES

Admiralty/Preemption

Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company and City of Chicago v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company.

The question presented in these cases is whether an ordinary tort which causes damage only to non-maritime parties is nonetheless subject to federal admiralty jurisdiction. The case arose out of a 1992 freight tunnel breach which resulted in water from the Chicago River flooding Chicago's downtown business district, causing millions of dollars in damage.

This case raises an issue of considerable importance to both states and local governments - whether state tort law will be preempted by federal admiralty law in the case of accidents that have only some tangential relationship to water. This question is particularly significant in this case because under Illinois state law the City of Chicago would be immune from suit. Thus, a decision to permit the suit under federal admiralty law could expose the city and its taxpayers to extraordinary liability that could not be imposed under state law.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the city and determined that the case was subject to federal admiralty jurisdiction. The court reached this decision for three reasons. First, the incident alleged to have caused the damaged (the negligent driving of pilings into the riverbed) occurred on the Chicago River, a navigable waterway. Second, the incident posed a substantial hazard to maritime commerce. Third, the activity in question (pile driving) was substantially related to maritime activity.

NLC's brief urges a reversal of the Seventh Circuit's decision and argues that the case is not within federal admiralty jurisdiction. More specifically, the brief argues that an ordinary tort, like the one at issue in this case, does not present the need for a uniform rule to protect maritime commerce, which is the principle basis for federal admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. In addition, the brief argues that pile driving is an ordinary construction activity which is a local, rather than a maritime, concern.

Commerce Power/Federalization

of Criminal Law

United States v. Lopez

This case involves the constitutionality of Congress' enactment of the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which makes possession of a gun within 1000 feet of a school a federal offense. The Supreme Court must decide whether this enactment represents a valid exercise of Congress' Commerce Clause power, where Congress failed to make any showing of a relationship between the possession of a gun in or near a school and interstate commerce in enacting the legislation.

This case is important to state and local governments because the growing trend to federalize traditional state law crimes is reaching significant proportions and centralizing law enforcement at the federal level. This trend significantly undermines the role of state prosecutors and the state judicial process by making them secondary to federal criminal law and federal prosecutions. In addition, the federalization of criminal law undermines state and local bodies in their traditional roles of proscribing criminal conduct.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Congress acted beyond the scope of its authority by enacting the Gun-Free School Zones Act without making any findings as to the link between interstate commerce and gun possession in and near schools. The court noted that education and firearms possession are both areas of traditional state authority, which should not be infringed absent such findings.

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