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Opinion of O'CONNOR, J.
should be adopted as a time bar for raising equal protection challenges to state elections in federal court. Rather, the Court only held that bonds ready for issuance prior to the date of Cipriano could not be invalidated under the rule established in that decision. Similarly, in Phoenix v. Kolodziejski, 399 U. S., at 213–215, the Court held that its ruling that the state election laws at issue were unconstitutional should not be applied retroactively where the bond authorization process had been completed prior to the date of the Court's decision. See id., at 214 (“[O]ur decision in this case will apply only to authorizations for general obligations bonds that are not final as of June 23, 1970, the date of this decision”). See also Hill v. Stone, 421 U. S. 289, 301-302 (1975) (holding that the law-changing decision should not apply where the authorization to issue securities became final prior to the date of the decision).
The Court's practice of focusing on the operative conduct or events is implicit in our other retroactivity decisions. In England v. Louisiana State Bd. of Medical Examiners, 375 U. S. 411 (1964), the Court established a new rule that a party remitted to the state courts by a district court's abstention order could not subsequently return to the district court if he had voluntarily litigated his federal claims in state court. The Court did not apply this rule to the case pending before it, because the individuals there had relied on prior law in litigating their federal claims in state court. Id., at 422. In Allen v. State Bd. of Elections, 393 U. S., at 571572, the Court declined to set aside elections conducted pur
invalid election laws, as the operative event —the elections – had been valid under law preceding the decision in Allen. When considering the retroactive applicability of decisions newly defining statutes of limitations, the Court has focused on the action taken in reliance on the old limitation period-usually, the filing of an action. Where a litigant filed a claim that would have been timely under the prior limitation period, the Court has held that the new statute of
Opinion of O'CONNOR, J.
496 U. S.
limitations would not bar his suit. See Saint Francis College v. Al-Khazraji, 481 U. S. 604, 608–609 (1987); Chevron Oil, 404 U. S., at 107–109.
As these cases indicate, the Court has not followed the dissent's approach in the civil sphere. In none of the cases discussed above did the Court indicate that the critical factor for determining the retroactive applicability of a decision was the time when principles of res judicata or a time bar precluded further litigation. Rather, the Court's retroactivity doctrine obliged courts to apply old law to litigants before them if the operative conduct or events had occurred prior to the new decision. In this case, we merely apply these well-established principles of civil retroactivity. Here, we define the operative conduct as Arkansas' flat taxation of highway use in reliance on this Court's pre-Scheiner cases. Supra, at 186–187. We then decline to apply Scheiner retroactively to invalidate taxation on highway use prior to the date of that decision.
In striving to recharacterize our precedents, the dissent makes the error of equating a decision not to apply a rule retroactively with the judicial choice of a remedy. Post, at 219–220. As the Court makes plain in McKesson, there is an important difference. Once a constitutional decision applies and renders a state tax invalid, due process, not equitable considerations, will generally dictate the scope of relief offered. Nor do this Court's retroactivity decisions, whether in the civil or criminal sphere, support the dissent's assertion that our retroactivity doctrine is a remedial principle. Indeed, Lemon II, 411 U. S. 192 (1973), specifically recognized that the Court's principles of retroactivity were helpful, but not controlling, in deciding the scope of a federal remedy:
“Those guidelines [expressed in Linkletter v. Walker, 381 U. S. 681 (1965), for applying our retroactivity doctrine] are helpful, but the problem of Linkletter and its progeny is not precisely the same as that now before us. Here, we are not considering whether we will apply a new constitutional rule of criminal law in reviewing judg
Opinion of O'CONNOR, J.
ments of conviction obtained under a prior standard; the problem of the instant case is essentially one relating to the appropriate scope of federal equitable remedies, a problem arising from enforcement of a state statute during the period before it had been declared unconstitutional. True, the temporal scope of the injunction has brought the parties back to this Court, and their dispute calls into play values not unlike those underlying Linkletter and its progeny. But however we state the issue, the fact remains that we are asked to reexamine the District Court's evaluation of the proper means of implementing an equitable decree.” Id., at 199–200 (opinion
of Burger, C. J.) (citation omitted). While application of the principles of retroactivity may have remedial effects, they are not themselves remedial principles. Any judicial decision will affect the relief available to one of the parties before the court; even an evidentiary ruling may have some remedial effect. However, rules regarding retroactivity, like decisions regarding the mechanics of procedure, are distinct from remedial decisions which govern what a court “may do for the plaintiff and conversely what it can do to the defendant.” K. York, J. Bauman, & D. Rendleman, Remedies 1 (4th ed. 1985); see also D. Dobbs, Law of Remedies 3 (1973) (“The substantive questions whether the plaintiff has any right or the defendant has any duty, and if so what it is, are very different questions from the remedial questions whether this remedy or that is preferred, and what the measure of the remedy is”). A decision defining the operative conduct or events that will be adjudicated under old law does not, in itself, specify an appropriate remedy.
Especially in light of today's holding in McKesson, the dissent's view that the doctrine of civil retroactivity is a remedial principle would surprise the many commentators, ap
2 See, e. g., Corr, Retroactivity: A Study in Supreme Court Doctrine “As Applied,” 61 N. C. L. Rev. 745 (1983); Traynor, Quo Vadis, Prospective Overruling: A Question of Judicial Responsibility, 28 Hastings L. J.
Opinion of O'CONNOR, J.
496 U. S.
pellate courts, see Note, Confusion in Federal Courts: Application of the Chevron Test in Retroactive-Prospective Decisions, 1985 U. Ill. L. Rev. 117, 128-136, and state courts that have considered Chevron Oil to be exactly what this Court has always understood it to be: a doctrine or set of rules for determining when past precedent should be applied to a case before the court. As such, Chevron Oil is better understood as part of the doctrine of stare decisis, rather than as part of the law of remedies. This is how nonretroactivity was first characterized by Justice Cardozo in Great Northern R. Co. v. Sunburst Oil & Refining Co., 287 U. S. 358 (1932). Considering a state court's power to apply its own decisions prospectively only, Justice Cardozo asserted:
“We have no occasion to consider whether this division in time of the effects of a decision is a sound or an unsound application of the doctrine of stare decisis as known to the common law. Sound or unsound, there is involved in it no denial of a right protected by the federal constitution. ... A state in defining the limits of adherence to precedent may make a choice for itself between the principle of forward operation and that of relation backward. It may say that decisions of its highest court, though later overruled, are law none the less for
intermediate transactions.” Id., at 364. See also United States v. Estate of Donnelly, 397 U. S., at 295 (Harlan, J., concurring). In those relatively rare circumstances where established precedent is overruled, the doctrine of nonretroactivity allows a court to adhere to past precedent in a limited number of cases, in order to avoid “jolting the expectations of parties to a transaction.” Ibid. See also JUSTICE SCALIA's opinion concurring in the judgment, post, at 204–205. Although JUSTICE SCALIA declines
533 (1977); Beytagh, Ten Years of Non-Retroactivity: A Critique and a Proposal, 61 Va. L. Rev. 1557 (1975); Schaefer, The Control of “Sunbursts”: Techniques of Prospective Overruling, 42 N. Y. U. L. Rev. 631 (1967).
Opinion of O'CONNOR, J.
to rely on our doctrine of nonretroactivity, his understanding of stare decisis leads him to conclude that a judge who disagrees with a decision overruling prior precedent must vote to uphold the validity of “action taken (in reliance on that precedent] before the overruling occurred.” Post, at 205. As Justice Cardozo discerned, prospective overruling allows courts to respect the principle of stare decisis even when they are impelled to change the law in light of new understanding.
In proposing that we extend the retroactivity doctrine recently adopted in the criminal sphere to our civil cases, the dissent assumes that the Court's reasons for adopting a per se rule of retroactivity in Griffith v. Kentucky, 479 U. S. 314 (1987), are equally applicable in the civil context. But there are important distinctions between the retroactive application of civil and criminal decisions that make the Griffith rationale far less compelling in the civil sphere.
In adopting a per se rule of retroactivity for criminal cases, Griffith relied on what, in essence, was a single justification: that it was unfair to apply different rules of criminal procedure to two defendants whose cases were pending on direct review at the same time. See id., at 322–323. In expounding this theory, the Court did not explain why the pendency of a defendant's case on direct review was the critical factor for determining the applicability of new decisions. It is at least arguable, as JUSTICE WHITE pointed out in dissent, that the speed at which cases proceed through the criminal justice system should not be the key factor for determining whether “otherwise identically situated defendants may be subject to different constitutional rules.” Id., at 331 (internal quotation marks omitted). Nor did the Court consider whether the reliance interests of law enforcement officials would make the retroactive application of new decisions inequitable, although this factor had been a key consideration in prior cases. See, e. g., Jenkins v. Delaware, 395 U. S., at 220; Stovall v. Denno, 388 U. S. 293, 299-301 (1967). In focusing solely on the pendency of a case before the court