Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Indiana
No. 11–161. Argued February 29, 2012—Decided June 4, 2012
For decades, Indianapolis (City) funded sewer projects using Indiana’s Barrett Law, which permitted cities to apportion a public improvement project’s costs equally among all abutting lots. Under that system, a city would create an initial assessment, dividing the total estimated cost by the number of lots and making any necessary adjustments. Upon a project’s completion, the city would issue a final lot-by-lot assessment. Lot owners could elect to pay the assessment in a lump sum or over time in installments.
After the City completed the Brisbane/Manning Sanitary Sewers Project, it sent affected homeowners formal notice of their payment obligations. Of the 180 affected homeowners, 38 elected to pay the lump sum. The following year, the City abandoned Barrett Law financing and adopted the Septic Tank Elimination Program (STEP), which financed projects in part through bonds, thereby lowering individual owner’s sewer-connection costs. In implementing STEP, the City’s Board of Public Works enacted a resolution forgiving all assessment amounts still owed pursuant to Barrett Law financing. Homeowners who had paid the Brisbane/Manning Project lump sum received no refund, while homeowners who had elected to pay in installments were under no obligation to make further payments.
The 38 homeowners who paid the lump sum asked the City for a refund, but the City denied the request. Thirty-one of these homeowners brought suit in Indiana state court claiming, in relevant part, that the City’s refusal violated the Federal Equal Protection Clause. The trial court granted summary judgment to the homeowners, and the State Court of Appeals affirmed. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the City’s distinction between those who had already paid and those who had not was rationally related to its legitimate interests in reducing administrative costs, providing financial hardship relief to homeowners, transitioning from the Barrett Law system to STEP, and preserving its limited resources.
Held: The City had a rational basis for its distinction and thus did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 6–14.
(a) The City’s classification does not involve a fundamental right or suspect classification. See Heller v. Doe, 509 U. S. 312–320. Its subject matter is local, economic, social, and commercial. See United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U. S. 144. It is a tax classification. See Regan v. Taxation With Representation of Wash., 461 U. S. 540. And no one claims that the City has discriminated against out-of-state commerce or new residents. Cf. Hooper v. Bernalillo County Assessor, 472 U. S. 612. Hence, the City’s distinction does not violate the Equal Protection Clause as long as “there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the classification,” FCC v. Beach Communications, Inc., 508 U. S. 307, and the “ ‘burden is on the one attacking the [classification] to negative every conceivable basis which might support it,’ ” Heller, supra, at 320. Pp. 6–7.
(b) Administrative concerns can ordinarily justify a tax-related distinction, see, e.g., Carmichael v. Southern Coal & Coke Co., 301 U. S. 495–512, and the City’s decision to stop collecting outstanding Barrett Law debts finds rational support in the City’s administrative concerns. After the City switched to the STEP system, any decision to continue Barrett Law debt collection could have proved complex and expensive. It would have meant maintaining an administrative system for years to come to collect debts arising out of 20-plus different construction projects built over the course of a decade, involving monthly payments as low as $25 per household, with the possible need to maintain credibility by tracking down defaulting debtors and bringing legal action. The rationality of the City’s distinction draws further support from the nature of the line-drawing choices that confronted it. To have added refunds to forgiveness would have meant adding further administrative costs, namely the cost of processing refunds. And limiting refunds only to Brisbane/Manning homeowners would have led to complaints of unfairness, while expanding refunds to the apparently thousands of other Barrett Law project homeowners would have involved an even greater administrative burden. Finally, the rationality of the distinction draws support from the fact that the line that the City drew—distinguishing past payments from future obligations—is well known to the law. See, e.g., 26 U. S. C. §108(a)(1)(E). Pp. 7–10.
(c) Petitioners’ contrary arguments are unpersuasive. Whether financial hardship is a factor supporting rationality need not be considered here, since the City’s administrative concerns are sufficient to show a rational basis for its distinction. Petitioners propose other forgiveness systems that they argue are superior to the City’s system, but the Constitution only requires that the line actually drawn by the City be rational. Petitioners further argue that administrative considerations alone should not justify a tax distinction lest a city justify an unfair system through insubstantial administrative considerations. Here it was rational for the City to draw a line that avoided the administrative burden of both collecting and paying out small sums for years to come. Petitioners have not shown that the administrative concerns are too insubstantial to justify the classification. Finally, petitioners argue that precedent makes it more difficult for the City to show a rational basis, but the cases to which they refer involve discrimination based on residence or length of residence. The one exception, Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. Commission of Webster Cty., 488 U. S. 336, is distinguishable. Pp. 10–14.
946 N. E. 2d 553, affirmed.
Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Roberts, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia and Alito, JJ., joined.
Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Tenth Circuit
No. 11–262. Argued March 21, 2012—Decided June 4, 2012
Petitioners Reichle and Doyle were members of a Secret Service detail protecting Vice President Richard Cheney while he greeted members of the public at a shopping mall. Agent Doyle overheard respondent Howards, who was speaking into his cell phone, state that he “was going to ask [the Vice President] how many kids he’s killed today.” Doyle and other agents observed Howards enter the line to meet the Vice President, tell the Vice President that his “policies in Iraq are disgusting,” and touch the Vice President’s shoulder as the Vice President was leaving. After being briefed by Doyle, Agent Reichle interviewed and then arrested Howards, who was charged with harassment. After that charge was dismissed, Howards brought an action against petitioners and others under 42 U. S. C. §1983 and Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U. S. 388. Howards claimed that he was arrested and searched without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and that the arrest violated the First Amendment because it was made in retaliation for Howards’ criticism of the Vice President. Petitioners moved for summary judgment on the ground that they were entitled to qualified immunity, but the Federal District Court denied the motion. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit reversed the immunity ruling with respect to the Fourth Amendment claim because petitioners had probable cause to arrest Howards, but the court affirmed with regard to the First Amendment claim. In doing so, the court rejected petitioners’ argument that, under Hartman v. Moore, 547 U. S. 250, probable cause to arrest defeats a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim. It concluded instead that Hartman applied only to retaliatory prosecution claims and thus did not upset prior Tenth Circuit precedent holding that a retaliatory arrest violates the First Amendment even if supported by probable cause.
Held: Petitioners are entitled to qualified immunity because, at the time of Howards’ arrest, it was not clearly established that an arrest supported by probable cause could give rise to a First Amendment violation. Pp. 5−12.
(a) Courts may grant qualified immunity on the ground that a purported right was not “clearly established” by prior case law. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U. S. 223. To be clearly established, a right must be sufficiently clear “that every ‘reasonable official would [have understood] that what he is doing violates that right.’ ” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U. S. ___, ___. Pp. 5−6.
(b) The “clearly established” standard is not satisfied here. This Court has never recognized a First Amendment right to be free from a retaliatory arrest that is supported by probable cause; nor was such a right otherwise clearly established at the time of Howards’ arrest. P. 6.
(c) At that time, Hartman’s impact on the Tenth Circuit’s precedent was far from clear. Although Hartman’s facts involved only a retaliatory prosecution, reasonable law enforcement officers could have questioned whether its rule also applied to arrests. First, Hartman was decided against a legal backdrop that treated retaliatory arrest claims and retaliatory prosecution claims similarly. It resolved a Circuit split concerning the impact of probable cause on retaliatory prosecution claims, but some of the conflicting cases involved both retaliatory prosecution and retaliatory arrest claims and made no distinction between the two when considering the relevance of probable cause. Second, a reasonable official could have interpreted Hartman’s rationale to apply to retaliatory arrests. Like in retaliatory prosecution cases, evidence of the presence or absence of probable cause for the arrest will be available in virtually all retaliatory arrest cases, and the causal link between the defendant’s alleged retaliatory animus and the plaintiff’s injury may be tenuous. Finally, decisions from other Circuits in the wake of Hartman support the conclusion that, for qualified immunity purposes, it was at least arguable at the time of Howards’ arrest that Hartman extended to retaliatory arrests. Pp. 7−12.
634 F. 3d 1131, reversed and remanded.
Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Breyer, J., joined. Kagan, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.