2002 No Action
2001 No Action
2000 No Action
1998 No Action
1995 No Action
July 10, 2001
TO THE HONORABLE, THE SENATE:
In accordance with the provisions of Rhode Island General Laws § 43-1-4, I am transmitting herewith with my disapproval, 2001-S 0262, "An Act Relating to Sovereign Immunity."
The bill waives the sovereign immunity of the Stare of Rhode Island that has been in place since adoption of the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. It does so by giving state employees, and no one else, the special right to sue the State of Rhode Island in federal court for money damages under certain federal statutes. The bill also gives state employees the right to sue the stare in federal court under certain state laws.
On June 20, 2001,1 vetoed House bill 2001-H5815 and for the same reasons I veto this bill - its Senate twin. To say this bill is bad public policy would be too kind. It undermines our state's sovereignty, disrespects our stare courts and juries and the legislative process and could expose Rhode Island taxpayers to unlimited money damages under laws nor our own. If passed into law, Rhode Island would be the only state in America to so completely abandon its bedrock constitutional protection and so thoroughly place at risk the public fisc.
I fully support the right of all Rhode Islanders, including state employees, to seek redress for unlawful discrimination and any other wrong committed by State government. This bill, however, is entirely unnecessary to achieve that end. Under existing law, employees can sue the stare in state court, in front of our citizen juries, for violations of state law and certain federal laws, subject to a $100,000 cap in most cases. In any individual case, however, the General Assembly may allow a recovery of additional monies based upon the particular facts of that case. Moreover, for almost every federal act referenced in the bill, Rhode Island has a state law twin that is frequently more generous, provides more protection and is, through the wisdom of our legislature, perfectly tailored to the needs of Rhode Island's citizens, including its state employees.
Presently-existing protections for state employees do not stop there. The federal government, through its agencies, is perfectly able to sue the state on behalf of employees to enforce these rights in federal court when warranted and necessary. Thus, Rhode Island's state employees are already protected by the federal government under the federal statutes listed in this bill. Longstanding remedies and routes of redress, both under state law and federal law are extensive and sufficient. Moreover, the bill's provision of an unlimited damages right in federal court to only state employees and no one else itself discriminates against all other Rhode Islanders - none of whom receive the special treatment created by this bill.
The genesis of this bill appears to be twofold. First, there is a mistaken belief that all this bill does is restore the right of a state employee to sue the state in federal court for money damages - a right that recent Supreme Court decisions said does not exist. The truth is that the Eleventh Amendment has always protected state taxpayers from suits for damages in federal court. This bill (not the United States Supreme Court) proposes to change that long-standing regime and replace it with a right to unlimited damages from the federal court. As such, this bill not only opens the door to the federal court but also gives state employees greater damages in federal court than is allowed for the equivalent case filed in state court. In so doing, suffice it to say that our esteemed Rhode Island judiciary and Juries will forevermore be bypassed in search of a pot of gold in a federal forum. There simply is no rational basis for our General Assembly to subject our taxpayers to this result. It would be one thing to provide a federal forum with the same rights as available in state courts with state juries. It is quite another to eviscerate in federal court the taxpayer protections that exist in State court.
The second apparent reason for this bill is equally troubling and proves our position. The bill appears to be, in part, a stealth attempt to reverse a recent Rhode Island Federal District Court decision upholding the state's sovereign immunity and by doing so providing one individual with nearly a million dollars in taxpayer money. This money was initially awarded, not by a jury of Rhode Islanders, but by a federal bureaucrat in a proceeding not even governed by court rules. The proper forum for such a claim - as the federal court itself implicitly recognized - is in our superior court, where it can be judged by a jury of peers, not by a federal arbiter. If our juries ultimately determine, in any case, that an award in excess of the statutory cap is appropriate, then the General Assembly, not the federal government, can and should decide whether to award it.
Sovereign immunity is an important concept to every citizen of this state. "When the state is subject to suit without limitations, our citizens pay - most commonly through increased taxes. Sovereign immunity protects the state's purse and allows for the smooth operation of government without the threat that unchecked liability could harm state coffers. Sovereign immunity prevents litigants from influencing the conduct of government through the threat or use of vexatious litigation, and protects the stare and its taxpayers from burdensome interference in the performance of its governmental functions. We cannot waive this immunity forevermore, and thereby abandon our faith in Rhode Island courts, Rhode Island juries and Rhode Island lawmakers. We must not become the first and only state in the nation to so broadly waive this immunity.
For all of these reasons, I disapprove of this legislation and respectfully urge your support of this veto.