First Circuit hears oral arguments in ATA’s Rhode Island toll lawsuit

April 7, 2021

Tyson Fisher


The First Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the American Trucking Associations’ case against Rhode Island’s truck-only tolls to determine whether former Gov. Gina Raimondo and other state officials must submit to subpoenas.

Legal counsels for ATA and the state of Rhode Island stated their case in front of the federal appeals court on April 5. The state is challenging a district court’s ruling that Raimondo and other high-ranking state officials are exempt from the subpoenas because of government privilege.

During oral arguments, Nicole Benjamin, representing the state, argued that government privilege is absolute. The district court had ruled that government privilege is qualified. Benjamin claimed that no other court has made that determination in a Dormant Clause case.

Although Benjamin conceded that public statements by officials to the press are not protected, questions about those statements are protected by government privilege.

In other words, privilege prevents Raimondo from being asked whether or not she made any given public statement and what she meant when she said it. Essentially, that would require Raimondo to be deposed, which Benjamin said should not be an option.

Charles Rothfeld, counsel for ATA, says that public statements suggest that Raimondo and other officials enacted the truck-only tolls because they wanted to impose disproportionate burdens on interstate truckers. However, if ATA needs to show discriminatory intent in addition to discriminatory effect, it will have to dig deeper.

As of publication, the First Circuit panel has not made a decision on the matter. If it affirms the district court’s ruling, Raimondo and other officials will have to submit to subpoenas, including submitting depositions.

Back in October, Judge William E. Smith of the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island denied Rhode Island’s motion to quash subpoenas for Raimondo, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Rep. Stephen Ucci. The state officials attempted to invoke government privilege to evade subpoenas filed by ATA in July.

Raimondo was sworn in as U.S. secretary of commerce on March 3. LL