Court Lets Judges Order Tax Hikes : Judiciary: It rules that U.S. jurists may not raise levies themselves. But they can force governments to do it and can lift states’ Prop. 13-type curbs.


Federal judges may force states to lift taxation limits and direct school districts to raise taxes to finance court-ordered desegregation plans, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a victory for civil rights lawyers and a partial defeat for tax increase opponents.

The ruling was issued in a Kansas City, Mo., school desegregation case in which a federal judge had personally imposed a tax increase on city residents to pay for a $460-million upgrading of the public schools.

Lawyers for the state of Missouri argued that, if an unelected judge can impose taxes, nothing is left of the principle that sparked the American Revolution: “No taxation without representation.”

But civil rights lawyers argued that, if state tax limits can be used to block a civil rights plan, nothing is left of the principle that animated the civil rights movement of the 1960s--that constitutional rights outweigh state’s rights.

In a split decision Wednesday, the court gave both sides something to cheer about.


On a 9-0 vote, the justices said that a federal judge may not directly impose a tax increase.

But, on a separate 5-4 vote, the court said that he could have lifted a state limit on property taxes and ordered the Kansas City school board to raise the extra revenue it needed. Missouri limits property taxes much as California does with Proposition 13.

The court sent the case back to the district judge with instructions to lift the state tax limits.

Some legal experts said Wednesday’s ruling was so narrowly drawn that it may not have a wide impact because a government body rarely finds itself facing an expensive remedy to a constitutional violation with no ability to raise money.

Still, the court opinion was notable for reaffirming the doctrine that rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution prevail over state rights.

This case began in 1977, when parents of black children in Kansas City filed suit over the decline in the schools. As whites fled the city schools, the educational programs and physical facilities had “literally rotted,” District Judge Russell Clark concluded.

The only way to ensure that the black children had an equal educational opportunity, as required under the U.S. Constitution, was to make the city schools “reasonably comparable” to those in the suburbs, Clark said. He then fashioned an $460-million, three-year program to do just that.

The high court, without comment, upheld Clark’s remedial plan last year. The only question the justices decided to consider on appeal was how to pay for it.

Justice Byron R. White, usually a reliable conservative vote, delighted civil rights activists with his opinion Wednesday.

“It is clear that a local government with taxing authority may be ordered to levy taxes in excess of the limit set by state statute” in cases involving constitutional rights, White wrote in the case (Missouri vs. Jenkins, 88-1150). “To hold otherwise would fail to take account of the obligations of local governments . . . to fulfill the requirements that the Constitution imposes on them.”

David Tatel, a civil rights lawyer who represented the black parents, said: “This is a very important and a very good decision for us. It reaffirms that federal constitutional remedies do not depend on state laws or the availability of money.”

Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said the opinion “strongly embraces the power of federal judges to ensure equal educational opportunity. We are absolutely delighted.”

In a dissent read from the bench, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy denounced the majority for its “casual embrace of taxation imposed by the unelected, life-tenured federal judiciary.”

Judge Clark’s plan to upgrade the city schools is extravagantly expensive, Kennedy complained, and forcing city residents to pay for it will “lead to deep feelings of frustration, powerlessness and anger on the part of taxpaying citizens.”

His 24-page written dissent was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia.