We told state courts that they must obey federal law 200 years ago

That's what it took less than two pages for the Supreme Court to say today to the Idaho Supreme Court in James v. City of Boise.

Under 42 U.S.C. 1988 and many other similar civil-rights-type fee-shifting statutes, a court "may" "in its discretion" award attorney's fees to the prevailing party. Many years ago, the Supreme Court held that "may" means "almost always" when a court considers a fee request from a prevailing plaintiff who vindicated civil rights, but "almost never" when it considers a fee request from a prevailing defendant who defeated a civil-rights claim.

Specifically, the Court held in 1976 that defendants get fees in civil-rights cases only when the plaintiff's suit is "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." The Idaho Supreme Court tried to deviate from this tough-for-prevailing-defendants standard. The Supreme Court said state courts have to obey the Supreme Court's pronouncements on federal law — and reminded everyone that the Court first said this in 1816.


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