WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court on Tuesday considered whether a state could be sued by a prisoner for monetary damages under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Harvey Leroy Sossamon, a Texas inmate, sued state officials for violations of the act and alleging that he was denied access to the prison chapel and access to all worship services while he was on cell restriction. The prison later changed the cell-restriction policy.
A federal statute provides that a state accepting federal funds waives its immunity against suits claiming “appropriate relief,” essentially entering into a contract as part of the congressional spending clause.
Sossamon’s attorney, Kevin Russell, argued that monetary damages were the “quintessential” remedy for breach of contract by a state.
He said the statute was generally interpreted to include monetary damages as part of appropriate relief, and said the state waived its sovereign immunity when it entered into the contract. Assistant Solicitor General Sarah Harrington, arguing for the Department of Justice, also said the state implicitly accepts the chance it may face monetary damages when it enters into the contract.
Justice Antonin Scalia said he did not think it was inherent in the statute that the state was subjecting itself to monetary damages when it accepted federal funds. “I don’t think it’s clear with simply the word ‘appropriate relief.'”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also said when a state waived its immunity, it expected to face an injunction lawsuit, not open up its treasury.
Several justices appeared concerned that the standard for waiving sovereign immunity would be different for the federal government than it was for states.
Justice Samuel Alito posed a hypothetical situation in which Congress passed a statute that created a private right to sue both the federal government, asking if monetary damages would be available in both cases.
Harrington said monetary damages would be available in the case against the state government but “probably not” against the federal government, which Alito said he found it difficult to accept.
“What sense does it make?” he asked. “[W]hat’s good for the state should be good for the federal government.”
Ginsburg said the state was seemingly being treated with “less dignity” than the federal government.
Harrington argued that the state voluntarily waived its immunity “to some universe of suits” when it accepted federal funds.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said under the general principles of interpretation, the state should receive the same protection against lawsuits as the federal government, and Harrington suggested “just the opposite,” which he said worked against “protecting the federal balance.”
Scalia expressed doubt that the statute waiving the state’s immunity was clear enough.
“Although I might sit down and come out with a conclusion after intensive study that yes, maybe the best reading of this statute is that it allows money damages, I find it hard to say that it is unequivocally expressed in the statutory text,” he said.