Will v. Michigan Department of State Police

RESPONDENT: Michigan Department of State Police
LOCATION: Highway 395, Inyo County, California

DOCKET NO.: 87-1207
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: Michigan Supreme Court

CITATION: 491 US 58 (1989)
ARGUED: Dec 05, 1988
DECIDED: Jun 15, 1989

George H. Weller - on behalf of the Respondents
William Burnham - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Will v. Michigan Department of State Police

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 05, 1988 in Will v. Michigan Department of State Police

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in No. 87-1207, Ray Will v. Michigan Department of State Police.

Mr. Burnham, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

William Burnham:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

In 1973 Petitioner applied for a... for a job with the Michigan State Police as a computer analyst.

He was fully qualified for this job.

He did not get it.

And he subsequently found out that the reason he did not get that was because the Michigan State Police had a so-called "Red Squad" which maintained dossiers on persons who had engaged in certain political activities.

The plaintiff, believing that he was wronged, sued in the Michigan Court of Claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, and he recovered a judgment to redress this violation of his Federal Constitution rights.

The Michigan Supreme Court took away that judgment.

They did not take away that judgment on the ground that there was no case on the merits, it's admitted now that in fact the Respondents did violate his due process rights.

It was not taken away because of any lack of jurisdiction in the Michigan courts for handling such cases.

Michigan courts are fully competent to handle Section 1983 claims, and the Michigan Court of Claims is the court which is specially constituted to hear claims against the State of Michigan and its departments.

The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the case because, in its view, the Petitioner had not made out a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. 1983, because the Respondents were not persons acting under color of state law within the meaning of that statute.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Burnham, one thing that seems strange to me about this case is, if the Supreme Court of Michigan had wanted to award damages on this cause of action, it surely could have done so just under some general state law theory.

Was the intimation from the Supreme Court of Michigan opinion that, had the Petitioner chosen to sue just under state law rather than under 1983 the result might have been different?

William Burnham:

Well, it would depend on whether or not the Chief Justice has in mind state constitutional law or state law of another type, in other words state tort law.

Under state tort law this claim would be barred by, by the state's sovereign immunity.

If it's state constitutional law, after this very case was decided, then the Supreme Court, the Michigan Supreme Court in this case, established that one could in fact sue under the state constitution.

Prior to that time, it had not so held.

And consequently, had he had, had the benefit of this very case at the time that he filed his case perhaps he would have framed things differently.

William H. Rehnquist:

The holding as to the state constitution was in this very case but it was not applied to him.

William Burnham:

But it was not applied to him.

There were two cases, the Smith case and the Will Case.

And in the Will case they determined that he had not clearly made out... had not clearly preserved for appeal the issue of the violation of the state constitution.

And in the Smith case, however, they had preserved it and consequently they had to decide that question.

But this is the first case in which the Supreme Court of Michigan has indicated that a state constitutional claim would not be barred by state sovereign immunity.

Prior to that and if it's on any other theory, any tort theory, anything like that, it would clearly be barred.

It's Petitioner's position in this case that the Respondents, Michigan Department of State Police and the Director of the Michigan State Police, are in fact persons within, within the meaning of the statute for basically three reasons.

First of all, the statutory language says so, and secondly, the legislative history tells us that as well, and finally there was no reason to depart from the clear meaning of the statute and the legislative history in order to read those terms differently.

In terms of the language of the statute, the well-established rule of statutory construction as far as this very issue is concerned, is that if there is a federal statute which addresses activities that states are equally capable of engaging in, that are targeted by that statute, then the rule is that "person" include states unless Congress expressly excludes them.