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Court Backs U.S. on the 55-M.P.H. Limit

September 01, 1989|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Thursday upheld the right of the federal government to impose a 55-m.p.h. speed limit on highways by threatening to withhold highway construction money from states.

In a unanimous opinion on the first challenge to the national speed limit, the court spurned claims by the state of Nevada that the federal government was using unfair coercion to get states to comply with the law.

The ruling follows recent Supreme Court decisions on congressional spending power and on states' rights, according to constitutional scholars.

Binding on States

The ruling is binding on all the states in the 9th Circuit--Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington--plus Guam and the Mariana Islands. Several of those states have indicated that they would like to raise their speed limits.

Since 1987, federal law has allowed states to set a higher speed limit on some stretches of rural highways and several Western states have done so. State officials said that 1,100 miles of interstate highways in California have a 65 m.p.h. speed limit.

Alice Huffaker, a spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol, said the decision will not have any immediate impact in the state. "It will not affect the 65 m.p.h. limit that exists" on many of the state's rural roads, she said.

Huffaker said California is already in compliance with the federal law, although, she said, the CHP is philosophically opposed to it: "We feel states are capable of setting and enforcing speed limits. That's within the state's realm of responsibility."

Power to Set Limits

Thursday's decision, written by Appeals Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt and joined by Thomas Tang and Charles Wiggins, dealt straight on with the federal government's power to set limits on highway speed. Among the Nevada contentions it rejected was the argument that the 55 m.p.h. limit violated the 10th Amendment, which reserves to the states powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution.

Reinhardt's opinion said his decision had its genesis in the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1916, under which the federal government provides funds directly to the states for maintenance of its highways.

In 1973, at the height of the energy crisis, Congress passed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which became part of the Highway Act. The new law required all states that wanted federal highway funds to set speed limits of no higher than 55 m.p.h., including on roads that were not part of the interstate network.

"While Congress did not order the states to conform their speed limits to the new standard," Reinhardt noted, "it imposed a draconian consequence for noncompliance: denial of all future federal highway grants."

Unfair Hardship

The events leading to Thursday's decision began in June, 1985, when the Nevada Legislature enacted a law increasing the speed limit on the state's highways to 70 m.p.h., saying that the 55-m.p.h. limit imposed an unfair hardship on residents in the largely rural state.

The U.S. Department of Transportation threatened to cut off $85 million of Nevada's federal highway funds if it did not lower the speed limit, according to Brooke A. Nielsen, Nevada's chief deputy attorney general. Nevada complied in order to keep the money flowing but filed a federal court suit seeking a ruling that the law was unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Bruce R. Thompson in Reno issued a summary judgment in favor of the federal government, and his decision was affirmed Thursday.

"Nevada has pegged its attack on the national speed limit on the wobbly legs of the coercion test," Reinhardt said. "While we strongly doubt the vitality of that theory, we conclude that alive or dead, it is of no consequence here. Congress could have mandated a national speed limit under its Commerce power: That it chose to enact a lesser restraint, by cutting off highway funds to states unwilling to adopt the designated limit, does not render its actions unconstitutional."

Challenge Lost

In a 1987 Supreme Court case, South Dakota lost a challenge to a provision of the Highway Act that held that a state could lose its federal highway money if it set a drinking age under 21.

However, Thursday's case has greater significance, Nielsen said, because South Dakota would have lost only 5% of its highway money, whereas Nevada stood to lose 95% of its funds. Nielsen said that Nevada attorney Brian McKay would have to thoroughly review the decision before deciding whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.

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