Transportation Law Update: When is a Toll a Tax — Round Three
Our readers will recall that on two previous occasions we reported on litigation in Rhode Island concerning tolls aimed at the trucking industry. (See Transportation Law Update: Is a Toll a Tax? and Transportation Law Update: When Is a Toll a Tax - Round Two) Following remand from the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and a subsequent denial of a motion for a preliminary injunction at the United States District Court level, the case returned to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit to determine an interlocutory appeal and writ of mandamus. American Trucking Associations, Inc. v. Alviti, 14 F.4th 76 (1st Cir. 2021).
The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently heard a consolidated proceeding involving the tolls paid by several trucking companies (“American Trucking”) in accordance with the Rhode Island Bridge Replacement, Reconstruction, and Maintenance Fund Act (“RhodeWorks”). The proceeding involved an interlocutory appeal and petition for a writ of mandamus asking the Court to quash subpoenas propounded to non-parties, ultimately leading to a dismissal of the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, while the petition for a writ of mandamus was denied as to one non-party, Rhode Island’s consultant, and granted as to the other, the State Officials (“Officials”) who were drafters and sponsors of RhodeWorks.
Background and Procedural History
After the enactment of RhodeWorks in 2016, American Trucking sought a preliminary injunction against the collection of RhodeWorks tolls. After denial of the injunction, American Trucking attempted enforcement of subpoenas against non-party consultants, drafters and sponsors of RhodeWorks, all of which were met with a motion to quash. Ultimately, after denial of each motion, the district court refused to certify such denial for interlocutory appeal. Thereafter, the non-party Officials who received the subpoenas filed an interlocutory appeal and petitioned the Appellate Court for a writ of advisory mandamus.
The Appellate Court first addressed whether the Officials could bring an interlocutory appeal despite a general rule which provides one may not appeal the denial of a motion to quash a subpoena but must obey it or refuse to do so and contest the subpoena’s validity if later cited for contempt. Against that backdrop, the Appellate Court determined it had no jurisdiction to conduct the interlocutory review, despite claims by the Officials that a special exception involving claims of privilege applied to them.
The Appellate Court then took up the writ of mandamus issues and first determined whether such writ should be granted as to the consultant of Rhode Island – a private party. In declining the writ, the Appellate Court held that the private party status does not provide an exception to the general rule on motions to quash and the ability to appeal. Thus, the consultant’s writ was denied.
Finally, the Appellate Court took up the Officials’ writ, and was tasked with determining whether American Trucking’s interest in obtaining evidence of the Officials’ subjective motives outweighed the privilege and comity considerations implicated by the subpoenas. American Trucking contended that the Appellate Court ought to narrow its focus to that of the dormant Commerce Clause (“DCC”), which would quell any claim of legislative privilege by the Officials, and further prevent their quashing of its subpoenas. In analyzing the interests of these Officials at the state level, the Appellate Court noted that the Speech and Debate Clause, normally applicable to only federal lawmakers, was relevant and also protected lawmakers across the states at times. As such, federal courts would be more inclined to sustain assertions of these federally based privileges by state legislatures. American Trucking sought to advance the argument by suggesting that its subpoena implicated important federal interests in uncovering violations of the DCC such as the intent and purpose of the Officials, which would eventually shed light on their discriminatory intent in drafting RhodeWorks. Ultimately, the probative value of any discriminatory intent was reduced by the challenges the Appellate Court found with using evidence of individual Officials to establish a finding that the entire legislature enacted RhodeWorks based on a discriminatory purpose. After all, the legislature as a whole adopted the statute—not individual legislators. As such, the First Circuit Court of Appeals denied the writ for the State’s consultant and granted it for the Officials.