JIM LEHRER: The final Supreme Court decisions of this term, and to NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, national legal affairs correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Jan, welcome. All right. There were three states rights cases. But the one from Maine was the leading one. Tell us about that.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. That case involved a group of parole and probation officers who sued the state of Maine in state court arguing that the state of Maine was violating federal labor law because it was not providing time-and-a-half or comp time for overtime. The state offered a different program. It was more like a bonus program, but the officers said that was not good enough under the federal law.
JIM LEHRER: And they were arguing that it was a federal law that the state government was violating.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right, the Fair Labor Standards Act.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Now, the two other cases, what about the other two cases?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, they involved the same bank, the college savings bank. It offers an investment program that allows people to set aside money to pay for future college expenses. A state agency in Florida, a state agency offers a similar program for Florida residents. The College Savings Bank maintained that the state agency was running afoul of federal law. It would violate their patent and infringe trademarks, false advertising was their specific claim. So they sued to stop the state agency from engaging in that behavior. So now the state agency won in one lower court. It prevailed on a false advertising claim. But in another court, it lost. And a lower court said that the patent infringement suit could go forward.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. So now all of these were ruled on today by the Supreme Court.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right.
JIM LEHRER: What did it say?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the court today said in a very important states rights ruling that citizens cannot sue states in state courts to enforce certain federal laws. This is significant because three years ago, the court said that citizens can't sue in federal courts to enforce some of those laws either. So it really means that citizens, as some police officers today said, don't have any way of enforcing their rights on their own.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what did -- who wrote the opinion, and what did it say?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The leading opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. And it was quite remarkable in that it really presented almost a history lesson of sorts. It traced the evolution of the Constitution and the law to reach the result that states were immune from these kinds of lawsuits. But Justice Kennedy went beyond the Constitution and the 11th amendment, which limits the judicial power. He made references to English History, to the Crown, to American History, to the federalists and the framers, to Hamilton. It was quite remarkable. It was like a primer on federalism.
JIM LEHRER: And basically, what was his point, that the states have rights that the federal government cannot erode? They've been there from the beginning, is that essentially what he's saying?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. And it's very important to our federal scheme that we respect these very different sovereigns, the federal government and the state governments, and that we have to be very sensitive to congressional overstepping. As he said, Congress has vast power, but it does not have, you know, absolute or all power.
JIM LEHRER: Now, can this ruling be read in a kind of all-powerful way? Or should it be read in a very specific way having to do with these specific cases?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the ruling have very important for states rights, but that does not mean that employees or citizens have no recourse against the states or that the states are free to go out and violate federal laws. There are exceptions to the holding today. Citizens can still sue states in state or federal court, federal court more likely, to enforce some other laws, such as the civil rights statutes, which most -- provide most causes of action. And the states can consent to the suits. And furthermore, there are other ways that you can enforce some of these rights. The federal government can sue on behalf of the citizens to get money damages.
JIM LEHRER: They could sue a state? The federal government can sue a state on behalf of the citizens?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. The Labor Department. Say in this case, the Labor Department could come in and sue on behalf of these officers to try and get the state to provide them back pay. And the state -- citizens and officers themselves could sue to force the states to change their ways. They can't get damages under today's rules, but they could sue to force the states to do things a little differently.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. All right. Now, this was a 5-4 decision, was it not?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Deeply divided.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what did the dissenters say? Who wrote for the dissenters, and what did they say?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: There were three different dissents in each case, and they were very passionate. Let me just say that the Justices will summarize their opinions from the bench. And sometimes if it's a controversial case, you'll get one of the dissenters wanting to summarize his dissent. Today all the people writing the majority, all the dissenters summarized their rulings. It was very high drama at the Supreme Court. They were quite passionate. You could tell from the tone of their voices just whether they were dripping with sarcasm or being very passionate about what they believed and how the dissenters really believed that the Court's ruling today is wrong. Justice Souter, for example, who really took on Justice Kennedy, said that the states don't have ultimate sovereignty; the national government does. And the ruling today, he said, would be disastrous, and ultimately would be discredited, just as earlier decisions from, you know, years and years ago have been discredited.
JIM LEHRER: On the grounds that you give somebody a right, but then you don't give them the right, you take it back. Is that what he was arguing?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. Well, some of the other dissenters made that point even more clearly, as well. Justice Stevens said that the Court has always recognized that no one is above the law, even the President of the United States. And he wrote that opinion that said President Clinton couldn't put off Paula Jones lawsuit. So, you know, that's near and dear to him. But he said certainly the states and their agents couldn't be above the law either.
JIM LEHRER: But Justice Kennedy met them with passion, as well, did he not?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: He was. And he started off summarizing his opinion, speaking really rapidly, as if, you know, he just wanted to get awe all of this in, explaining why this was so important and where all the vast amount of evidence came and history and in, you know, previous commentaries from England and from the framers to reach this conclusion. And then as he got into his explanations, he slowed down. And it was like really, as I said, he was giving a history lesson on federalism and why this was so important that the states have their immunity, that they maintain their separate powers, and that Congress not just come in and allow citizens to haul states into court at whim.
JIM LEHRER: Now, you say this is an important states rights case. Does it essentially change anything that the Rehnquist Court or previous courts have done?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the Court has been moving in this direction under Chief Justice Rehnquist. And Stevens said today once again this court is proving itself a champion of states rights. And in earlier cases in the last decade, the court has ruled that, for example, Congress can't order around state legislatures. It's ruled that Congress can't order around state executives, like requiring sheriffs to conduct certain background checks under the Brady Law. And today, I mean, it said that Congress also can't impose its will in the state court. So it's really covered all three branches of government and put some important limits on Congress's power. Now, there's another federalism case next term that will further explain how far the court is going to go with this. And that case is important because it raises an issue under the federal civil rights, that could be interpreted to be under the federal civil rights laws. It's a case under the Age Discrimination and Employment Act, and a lower court said that Congress went too far in allowing states to be sued to enforce that act. So that will be very important.
JIM LEHRER: We'll see what the Supreme Court thinks about that next time. Okay, Jan. Thank you very much.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thank you.