This afternoon the Supreme Court issued an initial order list from today’s conference. The justices added one new case to their merits docket for the term: Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District v. SolarCity Corp., in which they will decide a technical but important question: When can a state or local government appeal the denial of a motion to dismiss based on state-action immunity?
The plaintiff in the case now before the Supreme Court is SolarCity, a subsidiary of electric-car maker Tesla that makes, sells and installs solar panels. SolarCity filed a lawsuit in federal court against the power district, which is located near Phoenix, Arizona, and is a political subdivision of the state. The company alleged that the district (which is the only supplier of traditional electric power in the area) had changed its rates to put SolarCity at a disadvantage – specifically, by imposing a large penalty on customers who get power from their own systems. That change, SolarCity contends, led to a dramatic drop in orders for new solar-panel systems in the district. The power district moved to dismiss the case, arguing that it cannot be sued under federal antitrust law because Arizona law gives it the authority to set prices – a doctrine known as “state-action immunity.”
When the trial court denied its motion, the power district tried to take its case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. But that court declined to review the appeal. As a general rule, you can only appeal from a “final” judgment against you. One narrow exception to that general rule is known as the “collateral-order doctrine,” which (among other things) applies to orders denying some kinds of immunity – for example, absolute and qualified immunity for government officials and sovereign immunity for foreign countries and Indian tribes. However, the 9th Circuit ruled, the collateral-order doctrine does not extend to the denials of motions to dismiss based on state-action immunity, because the latter doctrine only provides immunity from liability; it does not immunize a state or local government from being sued at all. The power district asked the Supreme Court to review that ruling, and today the justices agreed to do so. The case is likely to be heard early next year and decided by the end of June.
The justices are expected to issue more orders from today’s conference on Monday morning at 9:30 am. They have not yet acted on the federal government’s request to allow it to fully enforce President Donald Trump’s September 24 proclamation, often described as the most recent version of the administration’s “travel ban,” while challenges to the ban are pending in two federal courts of appeals.
This post was originally published on SCOTUSblog.