U.S. Supreme Court

US Courts May Hear Intramural State Disputes, Supreme Court Rules; Scalia Spars with Roberts

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Federal courts may hear a lawsuit for prospective relief in a dispute between two Virginia state agencies over access to mental health records, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The 6-2 decision (PDF) did not break down by usual conservative-liberal lines. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion finding that sovereign immunity, as protected by the 11th Amendment, did not bar the suit. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. decried the “unsettling result” in a dissent joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Scalia sparred with the dissenters in footnotes, labeling as “exaggerated” their concern that the majority decision could lead to increased federal litigation over internal state government disputes.

Scalia wrote that the suit was allowed under Ex parte Young, which holds that federal courts may command a state official to refrain from violating federal law.

“We do not doubt, of course, that there are limits on the federal government’s power to affect the internal operations of a state,” Scalia wrote. “But those limits must be found in some textual provision or structural premise of the Constitution. Additional limits cannot be smuggled in under the 11th Amendment.”

In his dissent, Roberts criticized the majority’s “substantial and novel expansion” of the exception to state sovereign immunity.

The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy had filed the suit in an effort to access records in its investigation of two deaths at state-run mental hospitals. VOPA is an independent state agency that receives federal funds to protect and advocate for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. VOPA’s suit claimed the mental hospitals’ refusal to turn over records violated the federal funding laws.

Those laws authorized lawsuits and allowed states to receive funds by creating either a private nonprofit or state agency to advocate for the mentally ill and disabled.

“This case requires us to decide how to apply the Ex parte Young doctrine to a suit brought by an independent state agency claiming to possess federal rights,” Scalia said. “Although respondents argue that VOPA’s status as a state agency changes the calculus, there is no warrant in our cases for making the validity of an Ex parte Young action turn on the identity of the plaintiff.”

Scalia addresses the dissenters, who had argued that federal jurisdiction in a dispute between two state agencies would diminish the dignity of the state. But not every offense to the dignity of a state constitutes a denial of sovereign immunity, he said.

“The dissent compares VOPA’s lawsuit to such indignities as ‘cannibalism’ and ‘patricide,’ since it is a greater ‘affront to someone’s dignity to be sued by a brother than to be sued by a stranger,’ ” Scalia wrote.

“We think the dissent’s principle of familial affront less than universally applicable, even with respect to real families, never mind governmental siblings. Most of us would probably prefer contesting a testamentary disposition with a relative to contesting it with a stranger. And confining one’s child to his room is called grounding, while confining a stranger’s child is called kidnaping. Jurisdiction over this case does not depend on which is the most apt comparison.”

In another footnote, Scalia writes that the court is not addressing “other questions of federalism lurking in this case,” including whether the federal funding laws in the case are a proper exercise of Congress’ enumerated powers.

A concurring opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by Clarence Thomas, elaborates on the possible constitutional questions. One issue, they wrote, is whether the federal legislation exceeds Congress’ spending power under the Constitution by forcing states to allow “intramural suits like the instant one.”

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case, Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy v. Stewart.

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