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Saturday, December 11, 2021

Suing sheriffs

The Court's SB8 decision is, depending on perspective, a limited victory for providers (some limited path to offensive litigation, a federal DJ, and federal precedent) or a tragic defeat (nothing stops private plaintiffs from filing SB8 actions against providers and advocates). The search continues for some defendant(s) whom a federal court could enjoin so as to stop all SB8 suits.

A new theory is to sue sheriffs and other local law-enforcement who would enforce the damages and injunction awards in a successful SB8 case. This has been kicking around the ConLaw Prof listserv for months and Ilya Somin lays out the case. The theory is that by an enforcing a negative judgment against the defendant, the sheriffs are adverse to that defendant; that is different than clerks and judges, who act before the defendant's liability has been established.

I do not believe it works--or at least I doubt the five Justices who rejected what Gorsuch called the "clerks-and-courts" theory would accept it. Here is why:

1) The sheriff and the litigation loser are not adverse, independent of the judgment. The adverseness remains between the defendant and the plaintiff who successfully sued him for violating the law. The sheriff and the clerk operate the state machinery in which the party's adverseness plays out (machinery that allows assertion of constitutional issues), at opposite ends of the process. But both are neutral between the parties and the rights, claims, and defenses asserted, other than as they are found by the court. The sheriff has no interest other than in enforcing a presumptively valid judgment.

2) It similarly interferes with the state judicial process by depriving courts of the opportunity to hear and decide cases within their jurisdiction. It rests on the same erroneous premise that having to litigate (as opposed to being held liable on the claim) violates rights. The state judge may rule in favor of the provider (in fact must, if she follows binding prededent), in which no constitutional violation occurs. A losing party cannot challenge an unfavorable state judgment by enjoining the sheriff from enforcing that judgment; the loser is expected to appeal. It makes no sense to allow a party who has not yet lost (or even been sued) to preemptively challenge the judgment before it is entered. Along those lines, note that no federal claim lies against the sheriff if the judgment is enforced and later reversed; the defending party goes through the state proceedings to disgorge whatever he lost.

3) The sheriff's task in enforcing the judgment is ministerial. The sheriff has no discretion whether to enforce the judgment, as the clerk has no discretion whether to accept the order. The sheriff likely does not know or review the substance or merits of the underlying judgment. Sheriffs would have to review and evaluate every judgment, perhaps having to parse a judgment on multiple claims, some of which can be enforced and others of which cannot.

4) The theory is boundless and without limiting principle. It cannot be limited to SB8, so every defendant would avail itself of this strategy.

5) The claim is too speculative. The sheriff violates rights by enforcing the judgment; that violation requires an intervening act by a separate actor--the judge must enter judgment against the provider. But that may not happen, if the judge acts as she should in following precedent to reject liability under SB8. The court will not presume the state judge will do this. The sheriff theory goes a step beyond the clerk theory. The latter required one presumption--that someone would file the suit they are authorized to file. The latter requires that presumption, plus the additional presumption that the judge will get it wrong.

My guess is the WWH plaintiffs and their lawyers recognized this. They threw every defendant they could think of into that lawsuit. That they did not include sheriffs must mean they knew that was a longer shot than the unprecedented theories they attempted.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 11, 2021 at 11:32 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink

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