Raimondo escapes subpoenas in ATA’s truck-only toll lawsuit
September 22, 2021
In a major blow to challenge Rhode Island’s truck-only tolls, a federal court of appeals reversed a lower court’s decision forcing former state leaders, including former Gov. Gina Raimondo, to adhere to the American Trucking Associations’ subpoenas, taking them off the hook to undergo a deposition.
On Tuesday, Sept. 21, the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Rhode Island district court’s decision to allow the deposition sought from Raimondo, former Rhode Island Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Rep. Stephen Ucci. Raimondo is now the U.S. secretary of commerce.
At the center of the appeal is whether or not state legislative privilege allows Raimondo and state officials to escape subpoenas issued by ATA. The trucking association asserted that key lawmakers intended for RhodeWorks’ truck-only toll to be discriminatory against out-of-state truckers. Therefore, the importance of their testimony to federal interests overrides government privilege.
The district court agreed. However, the First Circuit ruled on Tuesday that individual, and even collective, intent is irrelevant when determining discriminatory effects of legislation.
The case will move forward but without testimony from Raimondo and state officials regarding their intent behind RhodeWorks, the legislation that establishes the truck-only tolls.
ATA claims truck-only tolls are unconstitutional
Defending the subpoenas, ATA claimed they were necessary to show that Raimondo and other high-ranking state officials intended to discriminate against interstate commerce in charging truck-only tolls. Rhode Island claimed government privilege precluded discovery.
Evidence supporting ATA’s claims included comments about RhodeWorks made by Raimondo reported in a local newspaper:
“The reason I prefer the tolling proposal (to the diesel-tax proposal]) is because the majority of the burden is on out-of-state truckers and out-of-state companies who are using – and I would say abusing – our roads … I don’t like putting the burden squarely on the people and businesses of Rhode Island … If you increase the diesel tax, it’s every fisherman, every restaurant, every dry cleaner that delivers, every florist that delivers … It really hits every Rhode Island business.”
ATA also alleged that state lawmakers were aware of and intended to achieve “cost-shifting effects” that put a greater percentage of the burden on out-of-state truckers. Consequently, the truck-only tolls violate the dormant Commerce Clause.
The district court denied ATA’s motion for preliminary injunction, finding that statements from Raimondo and others were selective and out of context. ATA then filed the subpoenas to collect more evidence supporting its discriminatory-intent claims. Four motions to quash those subpoenas were filed, all of which were denied on the basis of interests in discovery overriding state officials’ interest.
Raimondo’s intent inconsequential to alleged discriminatory tolls
ATA claimed that Raimondo’s testimony provides information of important federal interests as they may implicate violations of the dormant Commerce Clause. However, the First Circuit disagreed, stating that “the subjective intent of state lawmakers is unlikely to be significant enough in this case to warrant setting aside the privilege.”
The appellate panel agreed that Raimondo’s and others’ testimony could “shed light and provide context” regarding their motivations. It also acknowledged that violations of the dormant Commerce Clause could be based on discriminatory purpose or effect. That is where the agreement ends.
The panel’s opinion states it cannot think of a case in which a toll that does not effectively discriminate could be struck down based on discriminatory intent. Conversely, it is difficult to imagine a toll that is discriminatory in effect but preserved by the lack of proof of intent. In other words, testimony provided by Raimondo and other state officials should be irrelevant, whereas evidence that will reveal the presence or absence of discriminatory effects in the actual results of RhodeWorks toll collections is more convincing.
“At base, this is a case in which the proof is very likely in the eating, and not in the cook’s intentions,” the panel stated. LL