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Howlett v. Rose

    Brief Fact Summary
    A high school student whose car was searched on school property and who was then suspended brought a federal claim in state court against the school board.  The state would not have immunity if the case were brought in a federal forum.  But the Florida state courts interpreted that state’s waiver of sovereign immunity as not applying to section 1983 claims.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law
    A state-law “sovereign immunity†defense is not available to a school board in a § 1983 action brought in a state court that otherwise has jurisdiction, when that defense would not be available if the action were brought in a federal forum.

    Facts
    A high school student brought suit against the school board after his car was searched on school grounds and he was suspended from school.  He sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which creates a remedy for violations of federal rights committed by persons acting under color of state law.  The student claimed he was suspended without due process because his car was searched in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.  He sought damages and injunctive relief.  The court dismissed the complaint against the school board for lack of jurisdiction.  The state would not have immunity if the case were brought in a federal forum.  But the Florida state courts interpreted that state’s waiver of sovereign immunity as not applying to § 1983 claims.

    Issue
    Is a state-law “sovereign immunity†defense available to a school board in a § 1983 action brought in a state court that otherwise has jurisdiction, when that defense would not be available if the action were brought in a federal forum?

    Held
    (Stevens, J.)  No.  A state-law “sovereign immunity†defense is not available to a school board in a § 1983 action brought in a state court that otherwise has jurisdiction, when that defense would not be available if the action were brought in a federal forum.  Federal law is enforceable in state courts because the Constitution and laws passed pursuant to it are as much laws in the States as laws passed by the state legislature.  The Supremacy Clause makes those laws the supreme “Law of the Land.â€Â  That Clause requires state courts to enforce that law according to their ordinary procedures.  The Florida court’s refusal to entertain a category of § 1983 claims, when the court entertains similar state-law actions against state defendants, violates the Supremacy Clause.  Reversed and remanded.

    Discussion
    The Florida courts, in the present case, interpreted the state’s waiver of sovereign immunity as not applying to § 1983 claims.  Since other similar claims were not subject to the sovereign immunity defense, the Supreme Court mandated that § 1983 claims could not be prohibited.  However, note that the court also said that “[t]he requirement that a state court of competent jurisdiction treat federal law as the law of the land does not necessarily include within it a requirement that the State create a court competent to hear [a] case in which the federal claim is presented.â€Â  Therefore, as long as a state applies a rule of subject matter jurisdiction neutrally and not in a discriminatory manner, the state can refuse to provide a court of competent jurisdiction to hear § 1983 claims.


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