Court denies Rhode Island’s bid for judgment in ATA truck toll lawsuit

July 22, 2020

Tyson Fisher

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The American Trucking Associations’ lawsuit against the Rhode Island Department of Transportation over its truck-only tolls remains alive after a federal district court denied RIDOT’s motion for judgment.

On Monday, July 20, Judge William E. Smith of the Rhode Island District Court denied Rhode Island’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. In his order, Judge Smith criticized Rhode Island’s arguments for ending the case .

Did Congress exempt RhodeWorks from Commerce Clause challenges?

ATA’s case accuses Rhode Island of violating the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It calls the RhodeWorks Act, which established the truck-only tolls, discriminatory in purpose and effect. It also says the toll scheme does not fairly approximate the use of the tolled facilities and that the tolls are excessive in relation to the benefit given to the user.

However, Rhode Island argues that Congress authorized the truck-only toll through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. Consequently, it is immune from the Commerce Clause argument because the authorization exempts Rhode Island from “fair approximation” and “excessive in relation to benefits” arguments.

Congress does in fact have the power to regulate commerce “in a manner which would otherwise not be permissible,” the court acknowledged. However, Rhode Island must show that such authorization is either expressly stated or made unmistakably clear.

“It is true that Congress in ISTEA expressly authorized a state to allocate toll revenue for purposes other than those related to maintenance of the toll facility,” the court stated. “However, this language, along with the other provisions of ISTEA, does not evince an ‘unmistakably clear’ intent by Congress to completely shield state highway tolling activity from Commerce Clause challenges. For this reason, defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied.”

Although ATA conceded that the “excessive” argument is shielded from Commerce Clause challenges, it still maintains the “fair approximation” argument is at play. The district court agreed.

The ruling denied judgment in favor of Rhode Island before evidence has been heard or seen.

Rhode Island state official statements

To support its position, ATA has indicated it will present several statements made by state officials at trial. Those statements suggest that the RhodeWorks Act was enacted with discriminatory purpose or intent. Many of those statements were made in news reports.

However, Rhode Island said the language of the statute is clear that there is no discriminatory purpose. Also, it claims many of the statements were published before the introduction of the RhodeWorks bill. Lastly, Rhode Island argues that statements by individual legislators or officials have no value when the language of the statute itself is clear.

The language of legislation is typically “the most authoritative guide to legislative purpose,” Judge Smith acknowledged. However, he said when it comes to Commerce Clause challenges, circumstantial evidence has been used as proof of discriminatory purpose. In this case, ATA pointed to statements made by key players in crafting and/or passing the RhodeWorks Act. Smith said these statements are relevant and are admissible unless excluded for other reasons. If admitted, the court will have to determine later how much weight to give that evidence.

On the other hand, Rhode Island is claiming that statements made in news reports are inadmissible hearsay. ATA argued that the statements made by RIDOT Director Peter Alviti, Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello, and Rep. Stephen Ucci are not hearsay because they will be offered to show “what the officials believed” or “the ground on which they advocated for enactment.” The court agreed with ATA.

However, there is one catch: the Rhode Island officials must be available for testimony.

To be admissible, press reports must be “supported by sufficient guarantees of trustworthiness” and “more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence that the proponent can obtain through reasonable efforts.” The court found that the trustworthiness requirement has been met.

“However, so long as the state officials are available to testify in a deposition or at trial, the press reports are not the most probative evidence on the subjects and are inadmissible,” Smith said.

Another argument being made by Rhode Island is that certain state and federal privileges may apply to preclude questioning of the state officials. However, courts have held that the evidentiary privilege afforded to state legislators under common law is limited. When making that determination further into the proceedings, the court will apply federal common law to any privilege claims, not Rhode Island state law.

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Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.