RESPONDENT: Monroe County, Alabama
LOCATION: New York Board of Education Headquarters
DOCKET NO.: 96-542
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
CITATION: 520 US 781 (1997)
ARGUED: Mar 18, 1997
DECIDED: Jun 02, 1997
Bryan A. Stevenson - on behalf of the Petitioner
Paul M. Smith - on behalf of the Respondent
Facts of the case
A Monroe County court sentenced Walter McMillian to death for murder. Later evidence, suppressed by Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate, exonerated McMillian after six years on Alabama's death row. McMillian sued Monroe County, claiming that Tate's actions were unconstitutional. McMillian argued that under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, a county is liable for the actions of its sheriffs that constitute county policy. A District Court decided that Monroe County was not liable for Tate's actions because the county had no authority over law enforcement.
McMillian appealed, claiming that since the county employed Tate, the county should be liable for Tate. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of Monroe County. The Eleventh Circuit held that though Tate was employed by Monroe County, he acted under the authority of the state.
Is a county liable for constitutional violations committed by the county sheriff in matters of law enforcement?
Media for McMillian v. Monroe County, AlabamaAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 18, 1997 in McMillian v. Monroe County, Alabama
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 02, 1997 in McMillian v. Monroe County, Alabama
I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 96-542, McMillian versus Monroe County.
In this case, Walter McMillian sued Tom Tate, the Sheriff of Monroe County, Alabama, and the County itself claiming that they had violated his constitutional right to due process of law.
Under our precedents, Monroe County can be held liable under Section 1983 only if Sheriff Tate is the so-called county policymaker.
It is clear that Sheriff Tate is a law enforcement policymaker, but the question which must be asked here is whether the Sheriff represents the County or the State of Alabama when he acts in that capacity.
The District Court decided the Sheriff was a state policymaker, not a county policymaker, but the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
Because our analysis is dependent on state law, we defer considerably to the Court of Appeals' expertise in interpreting the law of the States in which it sits.
And the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit sits in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.
All six Alabama Constitutions from the 1819 version to the current one have made sure of State Executive Branch officials alongside the Governor and the Attorney General.
The Alabama Supreme Court, in deciding whether the State or the County is liable on when sheriffs commit torts has interpreted the Alabama Constitution to mean that the sheriff is a state official not a county official.
The petitioner points to decisions in which sheriffs of other States have been held to be county policymakers.
And we, in no sense, dispute those holdings.
One of the principal virtues of our Federal system is that the States are given wide authority to set up State and Local Governments as they wish.
And what may be true of a particular officer in one State may not be in another.
Thus, it is entirely possible for sheriffs in Alabama to be state officials and for sheriffs in other States to be county officials.
Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer joined.