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Supreme Court splits on Barrett Law sewer payment case

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A divided Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that the City of Indianapolis didn’t violate the constitution by refusing to grant some homeowners’ refund requests for sewer project assessments they’d paid in full when other homeowners who’d made partial installment payments had the remaining balance of assessments owed discharged.

The 3-2 ruling came today in the case of City of Indianapolis, et al. v. Christine Armour, et al., No. 49A02-0901-CV-84, in which 45 homeowners in an Indianapolis subdivision sued the city for not receiving refunds of sewer assessments they’d paid. The assessments were part of a sanitary sewer project funded under the Barrett Law, Indiana Code Chapter 36-9-39, and the homeowners were able to either pay the full amount or make partial payments each month. But when the city switched to funding these projects under the Septic Tank Elimination Program, those who’d been paying monthly installments were no longer responsible for anything that had been unpaid. Homeowners who’d paid the nearly $10,000 assessments in one lump sum prior to Nov. 1, 2005, were denied any refund on any portion, equivalent to what the other neighbors had discharged by the city.

Those homeowners sued for refunds, declaratory relief, or a writ of mandamus, alleging the city's decision to not refund the money violated the Equal Protection Clause. The trial court agreed and entered judgment against Indianapolis for $380,914. The Indiana Court of Appeals in 2009 affirmed that judgment and found the city didn’t have a rational basis for granting relief to those who’d been paying gradually but not for those who had paid in full up front. The only way to resolve the constitutional Equal Protection Clause violation, according to the intermediate appellate court, was to issue refunds to the plaintiffs.

But the state Supreme Court disagreed, with a three-justice majority reversing the trial court decision and finding no constitutional violation had occurred. Justice Frank Sullivan wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justice Steven David, while Justices Robert Rucker and Brent Dickson dissented.

“We hold that Resolution 101 does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it rationally related to legitimate government interests,” Justice Sullivan wrote.

The majority found that the city’s rationale was that low- and middle-class families were more likely to have been paying gradually and those who paid in full up front were likely higher income, meaning it was reasonable that it would coincide with the government’s interest in moving away from the Barrett Law system because of the financial burdens it created. But overall, the majority cited a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1981 in determining that it doesn’t matter under the rational basis review what the actual facts might show about that financial hardship if the issue might be debatable before the governmental decision-maker. That is why the Court of Appeals erred in requiring actual proof of the financial hardship statuses of those who had their assessments discharged, the majority wrote.

The majority justices also pointed out that the decision to not refund money to those who’d paid in full was another legitimate government interest – preservation of limited resources in not emptying its coffers.

“It is true that those whose assessments were discharged also received a sewer and did so at a lower price,” Justice Sullivan wrote. “But the Equal Protection Clause does not require substantive equality among taxpayers if there is a rational basis for differing treatment, and the Court of Appeals erred in concluding otherwise.”

But Justices Rucker and Dickson disagreed, finding the city’s “rational basis” wasn’t sufficient and was used as more a blanket reason without any practical justification of it actually doing what it claimed to do.

“However, merely declaring that Barrett Law funding ‘imposed financial hardships on middle- and low-income property owners who were often most in need of sanitary sewers due to failing septic systems,’ does nothing to explain why the City treated differently residents who elected to pay their assessments in a lump sum versus those who elected to pay in installments,” Justice Rucker wrote. “Here, there is no indication that the Board even believed the classification would further its stated objective. In my view, the disconnect demonstrates that the classification fails to have ‘a fair and substantial relation’ to the statutory objective.”

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't specifically addressed whether a municipality contravenes the Equal Protection Clause when it forgives an outstanding assessment owed by some property owners while, at the same time, it refuses to refund an equivalent amount to similarly situated property owners who have already paid the same assessment in full.
 

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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