Missouri v. Jenkins, 495 U.S. 33; 110 S. Ct. 1651; 109 L. Ed. 2d 31 (1990)
Facts—A group of students in the Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD) filed suit against the city and the state for operating a racially segregated school system. The U.S. District Court agreed that violations had occurred and outlined expensive remedies involving, among other things, the construction of magnet schools. Although believing it had power to order the city to raise such taxes, the court initially settled instead for rolling back state laws prohibiting the city from raising such taxes. After dividing costs of improvements between the city and the state, the district court subsequently ordered KCMSD to raise local property taxes. Although acknowledging the lower court’s power to order such increases, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that in the future the court should not directly levy such taxes but should “enjoy the operating of state laws” hindering such tax increases.
(a) Do courts have the power to order localities to raise taxes?
(b) Were the judicial remedies ordered in this case excessive?
Reasons—J. White (9–0). After first deciding that the petition had been filed in a timely manner, White ruled that the Court did not need to decide whether judicially imposed taxes were unconstitutional under Article III (allocating judicial powers) or the Tenth Amendment (reserving powers to the states) because principles of comity, or mutual respect, should have governed the district court’s decision in this case. Moreover, as the circuit court established, there was no need for the district court to order the tax increase since it had the alternative, which it eventually utilized, of enjoining state limitations on such tax increases. Although not deciding whether the district court order raising taxes was justified, White argued that “a court order directing a local government body to levy its own taxes is plainly a judicial act within the power of a federal court.” In this case, the lower court clearly had authority to overturn state limits on taxation that would have thwarted the supremacy of federal law.
J. Kennedy’s concurring opinion argued that “Today’s casual embrace of taxation imposed by the unelected, life-tenured Federal Judiciary disregards fundamental precepts for the democratic control of public institutions.” He believed that the plaintiffs and the KCMSD had entered into “a ‘friendly adversary’ relationship” designed to increase the local school budget. Kennedy objected to the circuit court’s approval of the district court’s past action in raising taxes and found little distinction between directly imposing the tax and ordering that the school district do so. Kennedy argued that “taxation is not a judicial function,” susceptible to case and controversy requirements. Moreover, “A legislative vote taken under judicial compulsion blurs lines of accountability by making it appear that a decision was reached by elected representatives when the reality is otherwise.” Kennedy argued that the majority’s approval of lower court actions was imprudent.
Note—In a follow-up decision in Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. 70 (1995), the Supreme Court majority decided that the remedies imposed on the KCMSD exceeded requirements under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and ruled that mandated spending requirements had been improperly apportioned to the state.