This Forum has spared no expense in its criticism of the conservatives Justices of the Supreme Court who usually vote their personal beliefs rather than the law. Justice Scalia is, of course, the leader in that practice but he is almost always joined by the other three highly conservative Justices and occasionally by Justice Kennedy who more often votes with them because he just doesn’t know any better.
But occasionally the conservative Justices get it right, and in a case just decided involving the city of Indianapolis and sewers, Justices Roberts, Alito and Scalia did get it right.
ARMOUR v. INDIANAPOLIS
It seems the city of
Indianapolis had a policy
of charging property owners for sewer improvements that affected their
property. The owners were given the
choice of making a lump sum payment for the improvements, or making payments
In one project the city accepted payment in full in lump sums from a group of property owners.
After the City completed the Brisbane/Manning Sanitary Sewers Project, it sent affected homeowners formal notice of their payment obligations. Of the 180 affected homeowners, 38 elected to pay the lump sum.
It then changed the rules of sewer improvements
The following year, the City abandoned Barrett Law financing and adopted the Septic Tank Elimination Program (STEP), which financed projects in part through bonds, thereby lowering individual owner’s sewer-connection costs. In implementing STEP, the City’s Board of Public Works enacted a resolution forgiving all assessment amounts still owed pursuant to Barrett Law financing. Homeowners who had paid the Brisbane/Manning Project lump sum received no refund, while homeowners who had elected to pay in installments were under no obligation to make further payments.
and the 38 property owners who were not treated equally sued to get their money back under the Equal Protection Clause. They lost.
The trial court granted summary judgment to the homeowners, and the State Court of Appeals affirmed. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the City’s distinction between those who had already paid and those who had not was rationally related to its legitimate interests in reducing administrative costs, providing financial hardship relief to homeowners, transitioning from the Barrett Law system to STEP, and preserving its limited resources.
Held: The City had a rational basis for its distinction and thus did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 6–14.
Obviously what happened here is that the city of
Indianapolis just wanted
to keep the money it had already collected from the 38 property owners. And regardless of what the Indiana Supreme
Court said and regardless of what the U. S. Supreme Court said, those 38
property owners were denied equal protection under the law. The three conservative dissenting judges got
it right. Here is Chief Justice Roberts
in a rare case of writing clearly and effectively and correctly.
In seeking to justify this gross disparity, the City explained that it was presented with three choices: First, it could have continued to collect the installment plan payments of those who had not yet settled their debts under the old system. Second, it could have forgiven all those debts and given equivalent refunds to those who had made lump sum payments up front. Or third, it could have forgiven the future payments and not refunded payments that had already been made. The first two choices had the benefit of complying with state law, treating all of
citizens equally, and comporting with the Constitution. The City chose the
third option. Indianapolis
And what did the City believe was sufficient to justify a system that would effectively charge petitioners 30 times more than their neighbors for the same service—when state law promised equal treatment? Two things: the desire to avoid administrative hassle and the “fiscal[ ] chal- leng[e]” of giving back money it wanted to keep. Brief for Respondents 35–36. I cannot agree that those reasons pass constitutional muster, even under rational basis review.
And yes, as noted Justice Thomas once again was on the losing side, not the losing side of the decision, the losing side of logic and the law. Justice Thomas, having an opportunity to demonstrate minimal competence in the law, and once again is late for dinner.