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Friday, October 21, 2011

Small Change, Big Case

In my American Indian Law class, I just finished teaching the case of McLanahan v. State Tax Commission of Arizona, which held that the state of Arizona could not tax the income of an enrolled member of the Navajo tribe earned on the reservation.  It's a pretty big case about state power to tax American Indians in Indian Country.  The actual monetary amount at issue was $16.20.  While I was teaching the case, I thought of how Wisconsin v. Yoder, the case holding that the Wisconsin Amish had a right to keep their older kids out of school despite a state mandatory attendance law, involved a fine of $5. 

What other cases out there involve disputes over big principles but small amounts of money?  What do you think about a book collecting discussions of these cases?  What would it be called?  Will you contribute a chapter?  If you're an editor, will you publish it?

Posted by Jay Wexler on October 21, 2011 at 11:45 AM in Jay Wexler | Permalink


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Not sure if you're sticking to small stakes cases in terms of money-only. Consider Homer Plessy's "crime" from Plessy v. Ferguson. The whole arrest was a staged set-up just to test the law, with the streetcar company being told in advance by Plessy that he was going to do it. At the appointed time, Plessy, who was 7/8 white, announced that he was 1/8 black and was arrested by a policeman who worked for the transit company and was standing by, waiting for it. He was bailed out that day and essentially faded back into obscurity while the lawyers litigated the case to the Supreme Court.

Posted by: G | Oct 25, 2011 1:20:20 PM

I suppose we ought to include an inflation-adjustment index, too.

Posted by: Will Baude | Oct 24, 2011 7:54:28 PM

An addition to AF's first group: "It's the Principle of the Thing"

Posted by: Scott Bauries | Oct 24, 2011 2:01:18 PM

Main Titles

A Dime's Worth of Difference:
A Dollar's Worth of Difference:
Small Change, Big Impact:
I'm Not Going to Pay Them a Dime (probably need an actual quote from a plaintiff):

After the Colon:

Small-Dollar Lawsuits That Changed the Law
How Small-Dollar Lawsuits Have Changed the Law
Landmark Cases Over Small Sums Of Money
How Disputes Over Small Sums Of Money Have Changed the Law

Mix and match

Posted by: AF | Oct 24, 2011 12:39:15 PM

Suggested title: "Big Issues, Small $$$s". If the title is "Big Change, Small Dollars", then it excludes cases involving important issues with small dollars where the small dollar party lost. Perhaps that is intentional on your part though. Interesting book concept.

Posted by: medlaw | Oct 24, 2011 12:16:53 PM

The Scalia citation "Not a whole lot of money [- but it's their money!]" sounds lika a good title to me ...

Posted by: Positroll | Oct 24, 2011 4:55:40 AM

Not sure what to call the collection. I'd nominate a chapter on sour grapes. The dispute in Yazoo & Miss. RR Co. v. Jackson Vinegar Co., 226 U.S. 217 (1912), was over $4.76 in actual damages for the partial loss of a shipment of vinegar. The amount increased by a fine of $25 when the RR failed to promptly settle, as required by statute. The low dollar value of the claim for actual damages, and the Supreme Court's insistence that only that particular damages claim could be considered in assessing the validity of the statute, were both essential to the Court's disposition.

Posted by: Kevin C. Walsh | Oct 23, 2011 7:53:57 AM

Chicago Teachers Union, Local No. 1 v. Hudson, 475 U.S. 292 (1986). Some members of a Chicago Teachers' Union complaining about having to pay that portion of their union dues that went to certain activities not related to collective bargaining ("non-chargeable" activities).

The monthly dues for teachers was $17.35; for other covered employees it was $12.15. Assuming the union was correct that it spent 5 percent of its dues income on non-chargeable activities (and such a figure would be well within the norm), that means a teacher could legally object to less than 87 cents per month ($10.41 per year). For other employees, the total would be $7.29 per year.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Oct 22, 2011 12:10:56 PM

This is a great idea.

Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 ("Live Free or Die" license plates as compelled speech) involved fines of $ 25 (initially suspended) and $ 50 for the traffic citations that became a 15-day jail sentence only when Maynard refused to pay the fines "as a matter of conscience."

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 22, 2011 7:17:36 AM

In Pierson v. Post, the defendant took an appeal from a jury award of seventy-five cents (plus $5 in costs). Great project, and the book would be delightful.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Oct 22, 2011 1:03:24 AM

Probably one of the more famous such cases would have to be Yick Wo v. Hopkins. As a Race and the Law person, it instantly came to mind. It involved a $10 fine.

Another case: People v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 107 U.S. 59 involved $1 per alien passenger on a boat headed towards New York.

It's an interesting book idea. If I could find the time, I'd definitely write something. Good luck!

Posted by: Brando Simeo Starkey | Oct 22, 2011 12:12:03 AM

Brown v. Legal Foundation of Washington, 538 U.S. 216 (2003)--$4.96. I particularly enjoy the following exclamation from Justice Scalia at oral argument:

Respondent: [T]heir real complaint with this is their subjective ideological one, subjectivity which this Court has said is not the business of the Just Compensation Clause.
Justice Scalia: Once again, I... $5 and $2. It's not a whole lot of money, but it's their money!

Posted by: William Baude | Oct 21, 2011 7:06:14 PM

Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections -- $1.50 poll tax.

Posted by: Norman Williams | Oct 21, 2011 7:03:15 PM

As a fellow professor of Indian law - there several other Indian law cases.

Bryan v. Itasca County was a question of if PL-280 permitted MN to assess a personal property tax of $147.95

The fractionated land cases (Babbit v. Youpee and Hodel v. Irving) deal with interests in land that pay less than $100 a year.

Posted by: Grant Christensen | Oct 21, 2011 6:32:46 PM

Just thought of a better example (or one which could be usefully paired with the Scopes example). Mr. Meyer in Meyer v. Nebraska was fined $25 for teaching German to a grade school child.

Posted by: Scott Bauries | Oct 21, 2011 5:50:52 PM

Mrs. McIntyre's fine for distributing anonymous leaflets was $100. (McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm'n, 514 U.S. 334 (1995).) The Court noted the very issue you've raised:

"Mrs. McIntyre passed away during the pendency of this litigation. Even though the amount in controversy is only $100, petitioner, as the executor of her estate, has pursued her claim in this Court. Our grant of certiorari reflects our agreement with his appraisal of the importance of the question presented."

Posted by: Laura Heymann | Oct 21, 2011 5:27:22 PM

The Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee resulted in a $100 fine, but that was in 1925 dollars, so it may be a bit out of the range you're thinking of.

Posted by: Scott Bauries | Oct 21, 2011 2:54:06 PM

Another possible case is Teal v. Felton (1851). The case started over a 6 cent grievance with the post office. The plaintiff sought legal costs at trial, however, raising the damages claim to $2.95. By the time the case got to the Supreme Court, more litigation costs had been incurred and the final amount in controversy was $136.19.

The plaintiff in Teal claimed that the post office charged her the "letter rate" for a newspaper. (The letter rate was 6 cents more than the newspaper rate.) The post office argued that, because the sender had written a single initial on the outside of the newspaper, the sender was trying to communicate a personal message to the recipient. The big issue for the Court in the case was not really whether the package was a letter or newspaper, but whether federal officers could be sued in state court for state common law wrongs. The Court held that they could.

Posted by: Jack Preis | Oct 21, 2011 2:10:55 PM

Two from the fed courts field:

Clearfield Trust v. United States (1943): $24.20
Parratt v. Taylor (1981): $23.50

Posted by: Jack Preis | Oct 21, 2011 1:41:51 PM

In Powell v Texas, the judge fined Defendant $50. 392 U.S. 514

Posted by: Andrew Jurs | Oct 21, 2011 12:33:44 PM

Thompson v. Louisville (a $10 fine, with Justice Black suspending the payment pending Supreme Court review of the cases). Great idea and topic!

Posted by: Mark Tushnet | Oct 21, 2011 11:59:31 AM

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