A Floor, Not a Ceiling: Federalism and Remedies for Violations of Constitutional Rights in Danforth v. Minnesota


Few doubt that states can provide greater protection for individual rights under state constitutions than is available under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the federal Constitution.  More difficult issues arise, however, when state courts seek to provide greater protection than the Court requires for federal constitutional rights.  Can state courts impose remedies for violations of federal constitutional rights that are more generous than those required by the federal Supreme Court? That is the issue raised by the Court’s recent decision in Danforth v. Minnesota.  By a 7-2 vote, the Court decided that state courts could indeed provide victims of constitutional rights violations broader remedies than those mandated by federal Supreme Court decisions.  I contend that this outcome is correct, despite the seeming incongruity of allowing state courts to deviate from the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the federal Constitution.  The Supreme Court should establish a floor for remedies below which states cannot fall. But there is no reason for it to also mandate a ceiling.



Part I briefly describes the facts and background to Danforth.  In Part II, I provide a doctrinal justification for the Supreme Court’s decision.  It makes sense to allow state courts to provide more generous remedies than those mandated by the federal courts in cases where restrictions on the scope of remedies are not imposed by the Constitution itself, but are instead based on policy grounds.  State courts can legitimately conclude that these policy grounds are absent or outweighed by other considerations within their state systems, even if they are compelling justifications for restricting the scope of remedies available in federal courts.  State courts are in a better position to weigh the relevant tradeoffs in a state legal system than federal courts are.



Part III explains the potential policy advantages of allowing interstate diversity in remedies, most importantly inter-jurisdictional competition and an increased ability to provide for diverse citizen preferences and local conditions across different parts of the country.  The optimal remedy for a constitutional rights violation in New York may well be different from the optimal remedy for one that occurs in Mississippi.