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High Court OKs Pitting State Against Its Agency

(CN) - An independent state entity can pursue a federal lawsuit against state officials for alleged violations of federal law, a divided Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday. While the majority maintained that the suit was a novelty, the dissent likened the case to cannibalism or patricide.

The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy, an independent state agency that advocates for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, requested peer reviews related to two deaths and one injury in state facilities, but state officials refused to turn over the records.

A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit had dismissed the suit in 2009, finding that the officials were entitled to immunity under the 11th Amendment from the agency's federal lawsuit.

But a majority of the high court disagreed Tuesday and revived the lawsuit. Virginia established VOPA to comply with the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000. Under this law, states receive federal money to improve community services, such as medical care and job training, for individuals with developmental disabilities, and the agency receives separate funding to oversee that spending.

Under the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act, Virginia's watchdog agency receives increased funding to extend its purview to the mentally ill. Ensuring that such organizations are not toothless, both federal laws require an agency's independence from the state government.

VOPA s attorney, Seth Galanter with Morrison & Foerster, said the court s decision vindicated his client s rights.  Denying VOPA the ability to enforce its rights in federal court would impede needed oversight of state institutions that treat people with disabilities and mental illness, Galanter said in a statement.

Writing for the seven-judge majority, Justice Antonin Scalia described how Virginia elected to be one of just eight states that chose a government entity over a private nonprofit to act as its advocate.

He continued that the arrangement clearly fits under the Ex parte Young doctrine, which the court established to limit the sovereign-immunity principle. "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 wrote. "Although we have never encountered such a suit before, we are satisfied that entertaining VOPA's action is consistent with our precedents and does not offend the distinctive interests protected by sovereign immunity."

On its face, Virginia's refusal to produce the requested peer reviews and VOPA's demand for an injunction meet the criteria to trump claims of immunity. "Respondents concede that were VOPA a private organization rather than a state agency, the doctrine would permit this action to proceed," Scalia wrote. "We see no reason for a different result here. 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."

The difference here, Chief Justice John Roberts argued in a dissenting opinion, is that fighting a private nonprofit would not force the state to turn against itself.

"Contrary to the Court's suggestion, there is indeed a real difference between a suit against the State brought by a private party and one brought by a state agency," Roberts wrote, joined by Justice Samuel Alito. "It is the difference between eating and cannibalism; between murder and patricide. While the ultimate results may be the same - a full stomach and a dead body - it is the means of getting there that attracts notice. I would think it more an affront to someone's dignity to be sued by a brother than to be sued by a stranger. While neither may be welcomed, that does not mean they would be equally received."

Scalia took issue in a footnote with the dissent's metaphor. "We think the dissent's principle of familial affront less than universally applicable, even with respect to real families, never mind governmental siblings," Scalia wrote. "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 kidnapping. Jurisdiction over this case does not depend on which is the most apt comparison."

The majority continued that allowing the lawsuit to proceed would not threaten states' sovereignty. "Respondents and the dissent argue that entertaining VOPA's lawsuit in a federal forum would nevertheless infringe Virginia's sovereign interests because it diminishes the dignity of a State for a federal court to adjudicate a dispute between its components," Scalia wrote. "We disagree. As an initial matter, we do not understand how a State's stature could be diminished to any greater degree when its own agency polices its officers' compliance with their federal obligations, than when a private person hales those officers into federal court for that same purpose - something everyone agrees is proper." (Italics in original.)

Scalia noted that the "relative novelty" of this suit gave the justices pause since "lack of historical precedent can indicate a constitutional infirmity."

"Respondents rightly observe that federal courts have not often encountered lawsuits brought by state agencies against other state officials," the opinion states. But ultimately the concerns are without merit, Scalia found.

In a concurring opinion, Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas note that VOPA has a novel authority that few other state agencies can claim. "The statutory framework in the case now before the Court is unusual in that it vests a state agency itself with federal rights against the State," Kennedy wrote. "Statutes tend to protect the rights of individuals, not officers or agencies, and the Constitution's rights-creating Clauses protect persons rather than officers. Because the Young exception is available only to those who assert federal violations, the paucity of federal rights vested in government officials makes the scope of the holding here a narrow one."

Roberts disagreed that the "narrow exception" can stand, noting that the indignity "of being haled into court without its consent" is compounded by the nature of having a federal judge determine an "internal dispute."

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the consideration or resolution of this case. The court heard oral arguments in December.

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