CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Georgia State Board of Equalization (06-1287) and Logan v. United States (06-6911)
Greetings, Court Fans!
As promised, the Court issued two opinions Tuesday, and the winners of the Court's unofficial (but hotly contested) race to get out the first opinions are . . . Justice Ginsburg and Chief Justice Roberts. As we noted last time, December is pretty late for the Court to be issuing its first signed opinions, and having read these opinions – well, we wonder what took them so long. Brace yourselves for some real barn-burners . . . .
First up is CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Georgia State Board of Equalization (06-1287), where the Court unanimously held that the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (affectionately known as "the 4-R Act") allows railroads to challenge the valuation methodologies used by states to calculate property taxes. The 4-R Act prohibits states from discriminating against railroads by taxing their property more heavily than other commercial property (apparently, this used to be a big problem). Twenty years ago, in Burlington Northern v. Oklahoma Tax Comm'n, the Court held that railroads could challenge a state's application of its valuation methodology (i.e., the mathematical calculation), but left open whether they could challenge the methodology itself because that question was not presented. CSX takes care of that omission, as the Chief's opinion makes clear that barring methodology challenges would eviscerate the 4-R Act. The Act bars states from using a higher assessed-to-true-market value ratio for railroad property versus other property, and there is no way for a court to tease out true market value, and thus assess a discrimination claim, without looking behind a state's valuation methods. Valuation is a craft rather than a matter of simple math, and often requires using multiple different methods (as Georgia's assessor did with CSX); if states could pick their methods without challenge, they could always pick methods that overestimated railroad property value, and all railroads could do was challenge the math – ensuring only "mathematically correct discrimination." The Court rejected Georgia's claim that its choice of valuation methods was a matter of federalism, as Georgia does not actually mandate any particular methodology – its assessors use whatever methods as they see fit – and, in any event, the federalism concern could not overcome the text of the statute, especially given Congress's determination that the states were discriminating against railroads.
Ginsburg's opinion came in Logan v. United States (06-6911) and concerned the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which provides for enhanced sentences based on a defendant's prior violent-felony convictions. ACCA provides an exemption, however, whereby a court can disregard a prior conviction if it has been expunged or if the offender has been pardoned or "has had civil rights restored" – those rights being the rights to vote, hold office, and serve on a jury. Logan argued that this "civil rights restored" exemption also encompassed prior convictions that did not lead to the deprivation of civil rights at all – that is, that "civil rights retained" were functionally equivalent to "civil rights restored" – and that therefore some of his prior convictions should not have counted for purposes of his sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Court unanimously rejected this argument based on straightforward statutory-construction analysis: the ordinary meaning of "restored" requires that something first be taken away, and "restored" appears in a list of other terms (expunged, pardoned) involving governmental relief from a penalty actually imposed. Logan argued that, unless retained rights were treated as equivalent to restored rights, less serious offenders might be subject to ACCA's enhanced penalties while more serious offenders who had had their rights restored would not. The Court acknowledged this potential anomaly but thought that Logan's solution created even more problems; for example, some states like Maine do not deprive any offenders of their civil rights, so under Logan's rule all Maine criminals – even first-degree murderers – would be treated as having their civil rights "restored" while those in other states would not. Given these competing anomalies, the Court could not begin to guess how Congress would approach the issue, so it stuck with the statute's text – "civil rights restored" does not apply to an offender who lost no rights in the first place.
That's it for now, though we may see more opinions next week. Thanks for reading!